Proud2Bme | Glee's Harmful Portrayal of Eating Disorders

Glee's Harmful Portrayal of Eating Disorders

By Catherine Weingarten--As most TV shows go, Glee has its ups and downs. One recent plotline has been pretty upsetting for me & for others in the eating disorder recovery & activism community.

This season we were introduced to a mini Rachel. Her name is Marley and she looks like she just stepped out of a J. Crew ad. She is extremely likeable with her naïve yet tough little personality and I’ve had fun watching her in different fun and predictable love triangles. But her character is supposed to be even more likeable/”Cinderella”-esque because she has had the pain of growing up with an overweight mother. We are supposed to feel for her because she is embarrasesed that her mother is so far from the traditional beauty ideal.

But the most controversial occurrence came when Marley was convinced to become bulimic to avoid becoming like her mother. The mean girl Kitty easily convinces Marley that in order to play the part of “Sandy” in Grease she has to look a certain way. Marley does not even seem to understand that Kitty is getting her to experiment with dangerous eating disorder behavior. So Marley becomes fully bulimic and later even passes out during sectionals, which prompts everyone in Glee club to hate her.

There is so much misinformation here about how one gets an eating disorder and the seriousness of eating disorders. It is common for people to not fully understand what an eating disorder is and only know about them through sensationalist tabloids or TV shows. Now Glee is adding itself to the list of shows spreading harmful and untrue information about eating disorders. Glee makes eating disorders seem campy and not very serious. We are supposed to be annoyed by Marley and not even care when she passes out at sectionals. There are so many young people who suffer from eating disorders; this type of TV representation can be incredibly triggering for Glee's audience.

When I was growing up I thought that someone had to be skinny to have an eating disorder. The phrase "eating disorder" was incredibly stigmatized and everyone made fun of people who were suffering. It took me a lot of time to finally discover the seriousness of eating disorders as well as how common they were. Glee should know better and not use a serious issue that so many teens deal with as a punch line.

Two of my favorite recovery advocates, Kristina Saffran and Liana Rosenman of Project HEAL were so upset by Glee's treatment of eating disorders that they wrote an open letter to the show's producers. You can read it here. I reached out to them by email and Liana was gracious enough to provide this comment:

"It is really dangerous [for Glee] not to include a public service announcement of the dangers of eating disorders. [They have] provided PSA's on various topics including bullying, depression, and suicide. Glee has a large demographic audience, with that in mind, no one is immune from eating disorders. People of different ages, races, and economic classes are affected by eating disorders. I think it's irresponsible to joke so lightly about bulimia without showing the real consequences, or the insight on the REAL recovery process. Marley has an eating disorder for two days and then magically recovers. That is far from the truth. I struggled with anorexia for five years. I am fully recovered but when I struggled with my eating disorder I needed inspiration. Glee fails to provide that inspiration for people struggling with eating disorders. Instead it provides unnecessary jokes and encourgment to induce vomit. Unfortunately for me, the story line is overshadowing all the great music and great lessons on building ones self-esteem and embracing inner beauty."

What do you think about this Glee plot? Were you upset by it? Are there TV shows you know that depict body image issues in a compelling way?

I hope that people who care about these issues can advocate for proper TV coverage. Definitely check out NEDA’s Media WatchDog program for more information about becoming a critical viewer or if you want to report instances like the one.

*Note: Lynn Grefe, President and CEO of NEDA, reached out to Glee's producers after the first show with an eating disorder plot aired. She was assured that the plot would develop in a responsible direction. The organization has not been in communication with anyone associated with the show since that initial conversation.

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