Updated: Oct 22, 2019
“Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.” This is one of many statistics listed in the opening credits of Tara Miele’s Starving in Suburbia (2014). Clearly aimed towards high schoolers or parents, the film is intended to spread awareness of eating disorders. Despite its positive intentions, however, the film ends up hurting those it is intended to help.
Hannah, a dancer entering her senior year of high school, quite suddenly develops an eating disorder after visiting a “thinspiration” website. The site is visually similar to Tumblr and contains photos of emaciated individuals and phrases like “ana is my savior”. In an unrealistic time span, Hannah, seemingly influenced solely by the website, goes on a crash diet and quickly develops an eating disorder. This portrayal does not reflect the development of eating disorders accurately and perpetuates the misconception that eating disorders are a choice. It also ignores the fact that eating disorders have complex causes, and are often a coping mechanism for underlying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Yes, Hannah is under stress from college applications, and seeing the website could have contributed to an already-developing problem, but we do not see her struggling with her body image or other issues prior to her discovery of the site. She seems to go from being a happy, well-adjusted teenager to having horrible self-esteem and struggling with perfectionism overnight. Rather than serving as a contribution to an existing problem, the website is portrayed as the cause of the problem entirely, which simply isn’t representative of reality.
Not only does the movie misrepresent the true causes of eating disorders, but it also romanticizes anorexia as something rebellious and beautiful. During the scenes where ButterflyAna, an anorexic woman on the thinspiration site, encourages Hannah to starve herself and gives her advice on how to avoid having her parents discover her illness, the background is shimmering and colorful. ButterflyAna is made to look like a beautiful model rather than the starving and sick individual that she is. Hannah’s weight loss and restricting montage is filled with positive music, and she begins to receive compliments from those around her. Miele wants readers to understand that Hannah's descent into anorexia is problematic, but by making her self harm seem fun and beautiful the film unintentionally conveys to the audience that anorexia is desirable. The end of the film does darken the representation of eating disorders considerably, but Hannah ultimately recovers quite rapidly, stays at a lower body weight than she began with, and doesn’t seem to suffer from any long-term effects due to her illness. Anorexia isn’t a phase that someone goes through for a month and then just gets over. It’s a severe illness that lasts for years. Even after a person recovers, which takes a significant amount of time, there’s a 31% chance that they will relapse within 2 years of entering recovery. There are often long term health consequences as well, such as heart conditions or loss of bone density. By portraying anorexia as rebellious, fun, and easy to recover from, the film is telling impressionable teenagers a dangerous and problematic lie.
Furthermore, while presumably intended to help those with eating disorders, Starving in Suburbia demonizes them. When Hannah joins the thinspiration website, ButterflyAna encourages her to starve herself. While it is obvious to those who are familiar with eating disorders that ButterflyAna is intended to be a representation of the illness itself, those who don’t understand eating disorders will likely instead think that those suffering from anorexia encourage others to starve themselves. People with restrictive eating disorders often describe experiencing intrusive thoughts, or a voice that seems separate from themselves, that push them to engage in disordered behavior. The film seems to be using ButterflyAna to represent that voice, but by doing so, reinforces the stigma that eating disorders are a choice and that those with eating disorders want others to engage in disordered behavior. A better alternative for representing the intrusive thoughts without demonizing those with anorexia is Feed’s approach. Feed, written by and starring Troian Bellisario, who has actually struggled with an eating disorder in the past, represents the eating disorder voice through hallucinations of the protagonist’s dead brother. Since the eating disorder is not shown through an actual person with anorexia, it is more clear to audiences that the hallucinations represent the eating disorder itself, and in no way are those with eating disorders demonized.
Starving in Suburbia is not a horrible movie; it is enjoyable to watch and is visually beautiful. It also isn’t a total failure in spreading awareness of eating disorders, since it does feature a boy with an eating disorder whose disease is encouraged by his wrestling coach. Anorexia often goes unnoticed in boys and men because the illness is seen as feminine, so I do commend the film for spreading awareness of anorexia in males. However, its flaws outweigh its positive aspects. The artistic techniques it uses cause it to do the opposite of what it was intended to do. Rather than being a positive force in the movement to spread awareness of eating disorders and combat the stigma around them, the film instead romanticizes the illness, demonizes those who suffer from it, and misidentifies its causes.