Pro-ana engagement with representations of eating disorders in film and television: agency, resilience and vulnerability
The prevalence rates of eating disorders have been rising, with up to 15% of the Australian population estimated as being affected by an eating disorder of some kind. This is a serious problem as eating disorders have a wide range of associated health risks and can have severe and long-lasting implications for physical and emotional wellbeing. Known risk factors for the development of eating disorders include biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. Media has long been theorised as contributing to eating disorder development through its promotion of thin-oriented beauty ideals, perpetuation of fatphobia, and so on. Despite media being a key player in the dissemination of information and perspectives about mental health, there is comparatively little research on how eating disorders have been represented in media – especially in visual entertainment media. The research presented in this thesis thus centres on the representation of eating disorders in film and television, and pro-anorexic responses to these representations.
In this thesis, two research questions were asked: 1) how have eating disorders been represented in film and television; and 2) how did users of a pro-anorexia website and forum interpret, respond to, and interact with representations of eating disorders in film and television? To answer these, a mixed-methods (quantitative and qualitative) approach was adopted. Specifically, basic content analysis was used to quantitatively examine what eating disorder were represented and who was depicted as having an eating disorder, in 79 representations of eating disorders in 32 films and television shows – thus addressing the first research question. Critical discourse analysis was then applied to analyse user discourse on a pro-anorexic discussion forum to garner users’ responses to representations captured in the basic content analysis, resulting in findings relevant to both research questions.
Quantitative findings highlighted a dominant stereotype in depictions of EDs in film and television with most portrayals featuring characters that were young, thin, white, female and as having anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. There were notable discrepancies between media representation and eating disorder research which raised concerns about misrepresentation. The qualitative results further supported these findings, whilst providing additional insights into the various ways that users of pro-anorexia forums – often actively and critically – interpreted and engaged with representations of eating disorders. It will ultimately be argued that existing representations of eating disorders are problematic and may have some concerning implications. Several avenues for potentially improving future representation will be discussed.