We need to talk about the media’s portrayal of eating disorders

Janelle Bouwense

Written by Janelle Bouwense

Janelle Bouwense is a senior associate at M Booth Health who believes that conversations about mental health can help decrease stigma and promote well-being.

Rebecca Fulp-Eickstaedt

Written by Rebecca Fulp-Eickstaedt

Rebecca Fulp-Eickstaedt is a junior associate at M Booth Health with a background in clinical nutrition. She is a Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who is passionate about eating disorder recovery and weight-neutral approaches to wellness.

Rebecca Stillman

Written by Rebecca Stillman

Rebecca Stillman is a senior associate at M Booth Health who advocates for body positivity. In anorexia recovery herself, she has made it her goal to help dismantle diet culture and promote equitable health treatment for people of all body types.

Trigger warning: eating disorder, weight, food and body discussions.


If you’re on TikTok, you might have seen the “girl dinner” trend that has swept across social media. If you’re not chronically online like most Gen Z-ers and millennials, it’s a simple trend where users share a video of what they call “girl dinner,” a term created by TikTok user Olivia Maher. Olivia’s “girl dinner” consisted of some bread, butter, cheese, grapes, pickles, and wine. 

Since Olivia shared her “girl dinner” last May, the #girldinner hashtag has over 247.5K posts. The content of the “dinners” vary, but there’s a common theme across many of the videos: “girl dinners” often do not include enough food to be considered a full meal. 

What may seem like a harmless trend can be actually quite problematic. Small “girl dinners” might encourage viewers to restrict their food intake to match what they are seeing on TikTok. For example, one video shares a “girl dinner” that consists of a small portion of fries and some mayonnaise.

Sadly, this is just one example of a social media trend that can be extremely harmful, both by promoting eating disorders and influencing young people to adopt unhealthy behaviors. The “clean girl aesthetic” and “that girl trends are two others that paint a picture of health and wellness that borders on orthorexia, or an unhealthy obsession with eating “clean” and “healthy” food. 

As someone who has been in treatment for eating disorders, it is common to learn all about “diet culture” and how the media, especially social media, supports this culture and can lead to consumers feeling a sense of shame about their bodies, as they are told that they need to lose weight.

After going through treatment and stepping back into the “real world,” the effects of diet culture can suddenly become apparent everywhere, specifically on social media.

We already know that social media has a huge impact on mental health, and can often lead to the development of eating disorders. The theme for World Eating Disorders Action Day (on June 2nd) is recovery, hope and science for eating disorders. So as health communicators, let’s make sure we are choosing to challenge the stereotypes around eating disorders by infusing the science and data as much as possible.


Traditional media and eating disorders: The narrative has continued to get better, but are we there quite yet? 

In traditional media, eating disorders are often portrayed as a vanity issue primarily experienced by young, white, thin females. In reality, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that affect individuals of all ages, races, gender identities, and body sizes. Studies estimate that 9% of the U.S. population will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, but due to misconceptions about what eating disorders “look” like, underdiagnosis and undertreatment are common. A few statistics:

Films like To the Bone and Feed spotlight very thin, malnourished bodies and graphic depictions of eating disorder behaviors. Portrayals like these are often oversimplified, and reinforce common stereotypes and misconceptions about eating disorders. 

These representations can also prevent individuals from seeking help. While the research tells us that the majority of eating disorder sufferers are not underweight, the media’s focus on individuals of low body weight can cause individuals to believe that they may not need – or deserve – treatment. For some, dramatic depictions of gaunt, emaciated bodies can also be triggering, sparking competition and urges to engage in extreme behaviors.

Our culture also tends to equate body size and health status (i.e., thinner or lower weight = healthier). Considering metabolic diseases  like diabetes or high cholesterol, many of these conditions are assumed to be issues experienced only by individuals living in larger bodies. In reality, diabetes and hypercholesterolemia can affect people of all body sizes and weights, and it is very possible for higher weight individuals to be metabolically healthy.

How does all of this tie back to eating disorders? Fundamentally, our society’s fixation on thinness can have a host of harmful repercussions. Research shows us that exposure to the “thin ideal” is associated with greater body dissatisfaction – and with increased risk of developing an eating disorder. The elevation of certain body types over others also lends to weight stigma and sizeism, discouraging our society from recognizing the beauty of body diversity and the fact that all bodies are good bodies.

Representation is key here, and this is where we can make a difference. 


How health communicators can shift the narrative and show up as allies

As health communicators, we can play a large role in shifting the narrative and be better allies to the eating disorder community. People experiencing eating disorders are at an increased risk of experiencing co-occurring medical conditions, such as osteoporosis, anemia, high/low blood pressure, and kidney failure, among others. 

It is up to us to make sure health information relating to any medication or condition is disseminated in an accurate and non-stigmatizing way that will not cause harm to people with eating disorders, or to those with disordered eating. 

Here are some ways we can continue to shift the narrative and show up as allies:

  • Dismantle stigma and foster inclusion – When communicating about eating disorders, or any other medical conditions, it’s important to be cognizant of what is fact versus stereotype. For example, while persistently high blood sugar levels are factually associated with type 2 diabetes, a particular body size is not. When disseminating information for the media and other audiences, it’s vital to foster an inclusive environment that depicts all different body types in visuals and text.
  • Remain informed on the latest news and conversations – Like any other healthcare-related issue, research on the latest policies, trends and data is key. For example, more than 70% of people with eating disorders have comorbidities, so it’s vital to stay knowledgeable on other health issues that individuals may be facing. 
  • Choose to challenge the norm – Whether with an internal team or a client, it’s critical we ensure that the language and/or visuals being used in communications do not stigmatize others. Just because things have always been done a certain way in the past doesn’t mean we have to stick to the status quo. Health data and guidelines have changed significantly over the years, so we must keep up with the times to make sure we foster an inclusive environment for our audiences.

As we commemorate World Eating Disorders Action Day this month, we remind and encourage health communicators to take a moment to think about how our work impacts those both in and outside of the eating disorder community.