Does Red Band Society Glamorize Anorexia?

By Liana Rosenman, Co-Founder of Project HEAL

I first want to stress that I do not believe that eating disorders, and in particular, anorexia, are caused by the media and society. Eating disorders are complex psychological and physical illnesses that have a myriad of causes. However, the media and society do not make things any better, and can make things worse for some people struggling with eating disorders.

As much as I would love to say that “Red Band Society” is this season’s must-watch show, I cannot recommend it. Upon seeing the previews for the show, I was excited to see the premiere but was disappointed with what I saw. “Red Band Society “centers around the lives of a group of teenagers in the pediatric ward of a hospital, who all form a strong bond through their fair share of experiences. Leo and Jordi are in various stages of cancer treatment, Dash has cystic fibrosis, Kara needs a heart transplant, Charlie is in a coma, and Emma has anorexia.

“Red Band Society,” is similar to “thinspiration,” dispensing tips and tricks to lose weight. Basically, the show has come out and said that a very dangerous illness is a good idea, here’s how to do it, and more specifically, here is how you can hide it. One of the scenes during the second episode titled, “Sole Searching” was appalling. During Emma’s weekly weigh in, she announces that she wants to gain 10 pounds so she can go to the Yale summer physics program. To achieve her goal weight, she gulps down water and stuffs her bra with coins. In another scene, patient Kara says, “I have cigarettes and diet pills if you get hungry.”

In episode four, “There’s No Place Like Homecoming.” Emma, Leo and Nurse Brittany attend Kara’s homecoming. Two high school girls are in awe at how skinny Emma is, stating, “I have never seen a triple zero in the flesh” and “I just don’t have the discipline for that (anorexia).” Eating disorders are not just about food and weight. People begin to use food as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfortable or painful emotions or to help them feel more in control when feelings or situations seem over-whelming.

“Red Band Society” is often misleading and uses drama to make it interesting. The show does not capture the reality of being hospitalized for an eating disorder. Emma is the love interest, the smart girl, the nice girl, the one who solves other people’s problems. And that would be fine, if we weren’t seeing her actively reject food every week. Anorexia not only has physical consequences (which I will get to next) but psychological ones as well. You become isolated, withdrawn and socially anxious, none of which has seem to have affected Emma.

“Red Band Society” also fails to show the devastating effects that anorexia nervosa has on the body. Throughout anorexia nervosa’s cycle of self-starvation, the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally. Thus, the body is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy, resulting in:

  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which means the heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower. 
Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones.
  • Muscle loss and weakness.
  • Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure.
  • Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness. 
Dry hair and skin; hair loss is common. 
Growth of a downy layer of hair—called lanugo—all over the body, including the face, in an effort to keep the body warm.

Emma’s character is presented exactly like those high schoolers from the homecoming dance see her: an inspiration. There are no visible signs of her eating disorder, no indication that it’s taking a toll on her body. Anorexia is more than just marking calories in a notebook and pushing your meals away. Anorexia is usually tied with various mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and so far Emma seems to be a charming, happy girl who just wants to be skinny. Eating disorders are not a “phase,” a diet, or a lifestyle choice. They are serious mental and medical illnesses that need to be treated by professionals. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It’s time to BE A VOICE and let people know that eating disorders are not a joke or a phase–they are life-threatening diseases.

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One Comment

  1. Effy said:

    After reading this article I immediately watched the show. They handle anorexia in such an awkward way I’m not sure they understand it or for that matter metal illnesses at all. It is treated just as a physical illness would be and Emma seems to be under almost no emotional stress or strain. The show then continues to make little jokes and puns such as “Emma is one smart cookie if only she could eat one”. Everyone has a cute little name they call her referring to her disorder such as “Thumbalina”. You get an almost thinspo vibe from the show which was defiantly a bit triggering for me personally. The show does really not the pain of anorexia and its almost like Emma’s eating disorder is a little personality quirk. In reality it would be an all encompassing obsession to her. Throughout watching the show I was a bit unsure whether or not I should be insulted by their portrayal. Emma’s character was written with a whole lot of romanticizing and ignorance on part of the screenwriters.

    November 3, 2014
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