In this op-ed, eating disorder survivor Ellen Ricks talks about her experience while watching the Netflix show Insatiable.
Having lived with an eating disorder for most of my life, it’s safe to say that I was a tad wary about one of Netflix’s newest shows, Insatiable, about a former “fat” girl, Patty, getting revenge on her enemies, via beauty pageants and occasional murder. Many have called the show fatphobic after seeing thin actress Debby Ryan wearing a fat suit in the trailer. There was even a petition to have Netflix cancel the show before its premiere, with more than 230,000 signatures. But the petition didn’t take: On August 10, Netflix released all 12, 46-minute episodes. In response to the criticism, Netflix’s original series vice-president Cindy Holland said the message of the show was misinterpreted, according to ABC News. Series creator Lauren Gussis released a statement on Twitter, titled “This is my truth,” and opened up about her traumatic experiences with an eating disorder, bullying, and suicidal ideation. The show, she wrote, “is a cautionary tale about how damaging it can be to believe the outsides are more important.” She asked viewers to give the show a chance, and despite the fact that a show like this could be very triggering for people like me, it could also open conversations about body image. So, I did.
The message I got from watching the show is that skinny equals strong, which is the mindset for many anorexics — I know it was mine for many years. I used to believe wholeheartedly that I was stronger and better than others because I could deny myself food; I wasn’t stronger for starving my body, I was weakening it. Even knowing that, watching Patty lose weight with extreme dieting and liquid fasts was seductive. I kept thinking, “I could do this — she’s fine,” as Patty was doing something self-destructive. As I watched, I slipped back into my dangerous thoughts and unhealthy habits.
Like Patty, I’ve never had a healthy relationship with my body. A serial dieter, I’ve been that child at the Weight Watchers meeting. I’ve collapsed from self-starvation multiple times. For a moment, I thought I had found a kindred spirit in Patty, who also knew what it felt like to be insatiable.
But when she got punched in the face and had her jaw wired shut, the show took a turn from being about body and food issues to being irresponsible about the complexity of eating disorders and extreme weight loss. What they were hoping to position as dark comedy, felt only dark.
Binge eating disorder (BED), is the most common type of eating disorder, yet it can go undiagnosed for a number of reasons, including societal stigma against the “sin” of overeating, and feeling guilty about a percieved lack of self-control, neither of which are the fault of a person who develops BED. Dr. Allison Chase, regional managing clinical director of the Eating Recovery Center in Austin, Texas, says that binge eating disorder is “defined by the repeated occurrence of binge eating episodes, the act of uncontrollably eating large amounts of food. The binge eating episodes are also characterized by rapid eating when not hungry, eating alone because of embarrassment and feelings of disgust or guilt. Binge eating – eating a large amount of food in a time period that is larger than what most would eat in the same time period – occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months.”
The hardest thing about recovery is learning to eat again. For years I denied myself even the simple pleasure of eating a cupcake because all I could think about was its calories; in recovery, I was terrified I would be eating too much and unable to stop. Watching Patty get shamed for eating any portion of food was deeply triggering; I kept asking myself, “Is that how people see me? Am I eating too much?”
Whether Patty has BED or not is never brought up. Instead, the show’s script includes terms like “compulsive eater,” “out of control,” “sick,” and “obese,” seemingly as synonymous with BED. Lumping them all together creates deadly stigmas. Binge eating disorder is a serious mental illness — as serious as anorexia and bulimia — yet it’s rarely talked about as a mental illness because of the stigmas our society has attached to it. The mishandling of such a sensitive issue was again deeply triggering for me. Hearing someone call another person’s eating “out of control” and “compulsive” makes me feel like eating is a bad thing for me, and that I should stay “thin.” It’s that voice in my head — the one I know is wrong — whispering, “wouldn’t it be easy to go back to the old ways?” That voice is a liar.
What’s more, the idea that weight loss can look easy — just get your jaw wired shut (ha- ha!) and don’t eat — is a horrible message to be sending not only to any viewer. It’s also incredibly inaccurate. The sick part of me wonders how much weight would I lose if I got my jaw wired shut.
The title of the second episode, and the theme throughout the season, is “Skinny Is Magic,” and it’s a sentiment you could find in any number of diet books available right now in your local bookstore. But lifelong food issues do not get fixed by losing any amount of weight. According to Dr. Stuart Koman, president and CEO of Walden Behavioral Care, a treatment center that offers specialized care for individuals and families impacted by all types of eating disorders, “So many people go into these types of