Eating Disorder Movies: 10 Films That Show The Reality of EDs
Feb 28, 2023, 9 min read
Eating disorders have been a notoriously difficult topic to tackle in film and television over the years, and many people feel that Hollywood either trivialises the issue, glamorises it, or misses the mark when it comes to the many different types of people in society who suffer from eating disorders.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, and eating disorders are a topic we want to shine more light on. Films can be useful for discovering more about an issue, and prompting discussions about certain conditions, so we’re sharing the top 10 movies to watch on this subject.
A quick disclaimer: If you suffer from an eating disorder or are in recovery, please bear in mind that many of the films mentioned below contain scenes that may be triggering or potentially distressing.
The problem with eating disorders in film
Historically there have been issues with the way eating disorders are portrayed on screen, for example, only depicting the ‘typical’ image of young women who are already thin, usually white, and often from a middle-class background. There are few eating disorder movies centering on varying body types, different races, older people, or men. Men make up 25% of people with anorexia or bulimia and 36% of those with binge eating disorder, so this is a hugely overlooked issue.
There are many people who believe there is no perfect way to depict conditions like anorexia and bulimia on film, so while the movies included in our list aren’t completely free from problems and criticism, they offer a range of viewpoints on a number of types of eating disorders, giving insight into the many ways they can develop over time, how they manifest in different people, and the difficulties (and tragedies) that can occur as a result.
The Best Little Girl In The World (1981)
Eating disorders were not officially recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the 1980s, so they were rarely mentioned in cinema until this decade. One of the first ever to include a central storyline about an eating disorder was The Best Little Girl In The World, a made-for-TV movie. Although it is tough to find and watch due to its age, it gives a somewhat accurate representation of anorexia and bulimia on film for the time. It focuses on the other issues going on in lead character Casey’s life that cause her to develop eating disorder tendencies that spiral out of control.
The viewer sees Casey engaging in typical ED behaviours such as skipping meals, throwing up her food, and secretively over-exercising. When the diagnosis of anorexia is eventually given in hospital, it is identified as being one mainly found in adolescent girls subject to unrealistic beauty standards and who feel they have no control. In reality, eating disorders can affect any age or gender.
The movie is a touch patronising to watch as it attempts to be educational, but at the time of its release there was little understanding of eating disorders so the film was a well-intentioned attempt to inform on the struggles that sufferers face.
Kate’s Secret (1986)
Kate’s Secret was one of the next significant movies to be released in the 80s to feature a storyline purely about an eating disorder. This one broke the mould (slightly) in terms of diversity, as it depicted a mother’s struggles with bulimia, breaking away from the teenage girl stereotype and showing that the issue does not affect only young people.
The secretiveness of main character Kate’s bulimia and binge eating is what stands out in this movie, showing how isolating the condition can be. From the outside, Kate’s life appears to be perfect, but inside she is struggling. It is a tad over-dramatic at times, but there are some uncomfortable binge eating scenes that display the feeling of being ‘out of control’.
Ultimately Kate’s condition leads her to be involved in an accident, which shows the dangerous consequences of what she is doing, and encourages her to seek treatment.
The Karen Carpenter Story (1989)
A documentary movie aired on CBS in 1989 — The Karen Carpenter Story — was the first biopic account of an eating disorder, depicting singer Karen Carpenter’s life (famous for being in the brother-sister duo The Carpenters) and her ongoing struggles with anorexia.
Although those close to the story have since claimed that elements of the movie were in fact exaggerated for dramatic effect (for example, a scene where Karen collapses in her parents house apparently never happened), it was a mostly true-to-life account of the struggles that Karen Carpenter went through.
It remains a significant depiction as, despite the film’s mostly happy ending (Karen smiling and her mother telling her “I love you”), before the credits role we are informed that Karen Carpenter eventually passed away due to anorexia nervosa, and so this film gives an alternative version to other movies that show the protagonist taking steps to recover. In many cases, eating disorders can be life-threatening, and we see this through The Karen Carpenter Story.
For The Love Of Nancy (1994)
One of the next big movies to feature a main storyline about an eating disorder was For The Love Of Nancy in 1994, which detailed a woman’s battle with anorexia. Although very similar to the previous movies, For The Love Of Nancy was significant at the time because not only did it show the accompanying Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) traits that can often affect eating disorder sufferers, it also showed the effect an eating disorder has on other members of the family, as well as what can happen when a person continues to resist treatment.
Although this film definitely showed a dramatic Hollywood story mainly taking place in a courtroom, it was an interesting take on the issue that featured actress Tracey Gold. Gold was recovering from anorexia in real life and so used a lot of her own life experiences to inform the role. There are of course moral questions about the implications of casting a person recovering from an eating disorder in such a role, but taken at face value the movie offers a slightly different perspective on the issue through the family’s eyes.
Sharing The Secret (2000)
Sharing The Secret shows a fairly ‘typical’ eating disorder story from the outside; a young girl in high school becomes obsessed with her weight and controlling what she eats due to comments made by her peers. Her family (distracted with other home issues) have no idea.
The movie begins with the line “the following story is inspired by actual case histories”, which seems to be evident from some of the carefully chosen dialogue, particularly between main character Beth and her mother. There are scenes of Beth engaging in bingeing and purging behaviours, and hiding them from those around her at school and at home.
What makes this film a particularly challenging watch are the scenes where Beth’s mother attempts to handle the situation by essentially forbidding the bulimia and blaming herself, only to be met with Beth’s line “this is not about you”. For many suffering with an eating disorder, this can be very relatable. Parents tend to believe they could have done something differently when faced with a child’s eating disorder struggles, but this isn’t always the case. There are positive scenes towards the end of the film showing Beth receiving treatment, and how her mother and family go on to support her.
Hunger Point (2003)
Although several other movies about eating disorders were released between the 90s and the early 2000s, most were centred around the issue of young girls attempting to lose weight in order to achieve their dreams of being dancers, gymnasts, or something similar. While these aspirations can still play a role in a desire to lose weight, Hunger Point was noted as showing a little more nuance in the underlying reasons people begin to develop EDs.
The film focuses on Frannie, whose sister goes to a psychiatric hospital to be treated for anorexia. It is clear that the girls’ mother has contributed to their obsessive dieting, and placed her own negative thoughts about food and body image onto her daughters.
The movie is very unsubtle, with the mother character coming across as rather villainous, however it does stand out because of the underlying reasons for the girls developing their respective eating disorders. It shows we model our behaviours after what we see happening around us, and is a careful reminder to those raising impressionable young people that the choices we make and the words we say have consequences.
In 2006 we saw the first mainstream documentary on eating disorders, showing issues like anorexia, bulimia and more with uncomfortably raw footage from a treatment centre in Florida.
The film follows four women all battling with their own specific issues in the treatment centre, all from different walks of life ranging from a young student to a housewife, although notably lacking in racial or gender diversity. Unlike many other cinematic depictions of eating disorders, the film does not glamorise the issues they face, and shows the severe consequences and deep unhappiness faced by all of the women. It focuses on how their lives have essentially fallen apart as a result of their eating disorders.
As a documentary it certainly shows the dark side of the issue without romanticising it, however it’s worth noting that the movie does not end with any resolutions for the viewer, but instead shows the ongoing nature of eating disorders. The footage is rather harrowing at times, and at its best can perhaps be viewed as a glimpse into the last resort treatment options for those suffering, or as a cautionary tale to encourage them to accept intervention before the condition reaches the later stages.
Starving in Suburbia (2014)
This movie has had its share of criticism due to the ‘classic’ storyline of a young, white, middle-class woman suffering from an eating disorder. However, the film displays a previously unexplored reason for the protagonist developing the disorder.
The main character, Hannah, becomes entangled in a “pro-ana” forum online, which stands for “promoting anorexia”. In it, other online users share their own tips for starving themselves, prompting Hannah to try them out. Hannah’s family are focused on her brother's upcoming wrestling tournament, and the film shows an interesting juxtaposition between the protagonist trying to lose weight while her brother tries to gain it. It touches on eating disorders in males, and remains one of few films to show this issue.
It isn’t exactly a hard-hitting look at anorexia, but the movie does offer a slightly different take to the others as it focuses on how online influence can affect impressionable young people or vulnerable people. You may be familiar with harmful "thinspo" communities online showing eating disorder content and encouraging people to take measures they may not have thought of on their own, and this film shows how easy it can be to start paying attention to such content.
Body Of Water (2020)
Body Of Water was released in 2020, and wasn’t particularly well-received by critics at the time, but the British film has since been noted as an interesting take on the issue of eating disorders. It shows both a middle aged woman battling her issues and receiving treatment (a change from the typical teenage patient), as well as showing the difficult dynamics between her daughter and her own mother.
Since eating disorders can cause significant challenges for those around the person suffering, families are often involved in therapy. This film offers a slightly different view on the topic, showing how it impacts several generations of a family who must witness the protagonist and navigate her repeated attempts to get better.
In this sombre film, the protagonist returns from her treatment centre, and is immediately met with wedding preparations for her mother’s upcoming nuptials which involve trying on and scrutinising bridesmaids dresses — a look at how a ‘perfect storm’ of seemingly harmless situations can affect a person with an eating disorder. The movie also touches on social media use and its impact, so there are a few underlying triggers addressed in this film.
To The Bone (2017)
To The Bone is one of the most recent attempts to show a realistic portrayal of life with an eating disorder, and perhaps one of the most widely dissected, for several reasons. One, because it does nothing to negate the stereotype that eating disorders are only an issue for thin white women. Two, because it contains many scenes that could be accused of handing sufferers an instruction manual on how to hide eating disorder behaviours. And three — perhaps most controversially — it stars actress Lily Collins who has spoken publicly about her own eating disorder in the past, which makes it potentially problematic that she was asked to lose weight for the role.
While this film can be seen as controversial on a number of levels and should be watched with caution, it does give an in-depth look at the potentially long-term battle that many with eating disorders face, how it affects other family members, what it is like to stay in a treatment centre, and the many complex and nuanced reasons people avoid eating or purge. Even if it’s not the best handled movie out there, it reiterates the complexity of the issue and could be helpful in initiating an open discussion on the topic of anorexia.
What to do if you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder
If you believe you have an eating disorder, you can seek help from your GP to discuss resources, treatment options and mental health counselling, or reach out to a qualified specialist (Augmentive has many practitioners that can assist) to find out your options.
Keep in mind that, despite what is pictured in some of the films above and others that have been released over the years, taking the first step in seeking help for an eating disorder does not typically involve anyone being forced to commit to an in-patient stay in a treatment facility. Reach out to friends or family who can help if you feel comfortable doing so, and if not, speak to a doctor or specialist on your own.
If you believe someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, let them know they have your support and encourage them to seek help from a doctor or therapist who can help them with the best resources and treatment plans.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private psychiatric assessments and reviews to broader mental health care: join us today.