How teen drama shows enforce unrealistic standards of beauty

We all love rewatching old TV shows we watched as teens, as adults we see messages that were going over our heads but were still being absorbed.

*Trigger warning: Eating disorders*

During spring break this year I did what any other college student would do; I made the executive decision to binge watch a TV show that I have already seen. This year’s choice, after some friendly peer pressure, was “Pretty Little Liars.” After watching a couple of episodes I began to recognize the bad influences that this show, and others like it, had on girls that grew up watching it.

Like many teen drama TV shows the majority of the characters are very thin and if they did not fit the media’s idea of thinness, there was a reason behind it. For example, the character Hanna in “Pretty Little Liars” was the “chubby” one of the bunch, and when she was anxious, she would binge eat. This often led to her becoming the joke of anything that had to do with food. 

In fact, in one scene, Hanna reaches for a cookie and a character says “Are you really going to eat that sweetie? I’m being a friend Hanna.” Later in the show, Hanna even gets liposuction because she was tired of being made fun of at school for being the chubby girl. This is a dangerous message, as it can cause significant harm to people and even death.

Out of all the characters in the show, the actress who played Alison was 13 when she started playing a 15 year old. Meanwhile all of her co-stars were in their 20s playing 16 year olds. This shows how different bodies can look from ages 13 to 20, yet we are having 20 year olds play teens while their bodies continue to tell different stories as they get older. 

Not to just put “Pretty Little Liars” on blast here, if you were to look at teen drama shows throughout the 90s, 2000s and even today, you can still see some of the same issues continuing to pop up. All of which can be seen in shows like “Gossip Girl,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Saved By the Bell,” “Secret Life of an American Teenager,” and other contemporary shows like “Riverdale” and “Euphoria.”

When viewing this as a young teen, these tropes can affect young viewers psychologically without the individual even noticing. Watching shows showing the same body type every episode and making jokes about characters struggling with their body weight places a negative light on individuals whose bodies do not match those we see on TV.

It is important to realize that this is not only an issue that girls struggle with, this is also something that boys deal with as well. It can be psychologically daunting seeing the same body type of males on every TV show they watch, and the second they don’t fit the mold, they are central to fat jokes. Even when they aren’t, they could feel that way because it’s all they know from the exposure to the shows they watch. 

Another important thing to understand are the different types of eating disorders being shown on TV.  

The article “Eating Disorder Statistics and Research” on eatingdisorderhope.com, defines these disorders more clearly, explaining that “Anorexia Nervosa is a psychological and potentially life-threatening eating disorder. Those suffering from this eating disorder are typically suffering from an extremely low body weight relative to their height and body type,” and continues to explain that “women and men who suffer from this eating disorder exemplify a fixation with a thin figure and abnormal eating patterns. Anorexia nervosa is interchangeable with the term anorexia, which refers to self-starvation and lack of appetite.” 

The same article goes on to explain other forms of disordered eating, such as Binge Eating Disorder (BED) “commonly known by compulsive overeating or consuming abnormal amounts of food while feeling unable to stop and a loss of control. Binge eating episodes are typically classified as occurring on average a minimum of twice per week for a duration of six months,” and explains that “men and women suffering from BED struggle with emotions of disgust and guilt and often have a related comorbidity, such as depression or anxiety.”

The last type of eating disorder explained in the article is Bulimia Nervosa, which is distinct from the above disorders in that it “is a psychological and severe life-threatening eating disorder described by the ingestion of an abnormally large amount of food in a short time period, followed by an attempt to avoid gaining weight by purging what was consumed.”

It is important to know the difference between these three disorders along with the risks and triggers associated with them. Beyond that, it is also incredibly important to keep in mind that all of these are life threatening and need to be taken seriously.

On their website, Eating Disorder Hope states that “.9% of women will struggle with anorexia in their lifetime, 1.5% of women will struggle with bulimia in their lifetime, 3.5% of women will struggle with binge eating.” While “.3% of men will struggle with anorexia, .5% of men will struggle with bulimia, 2% of men will struggle with binge eating disorder.” 

Many forms of disordered eating start young, “50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives to control their weight.”

While I don’t believe nor am I trying to say that eating disorders are caused directly by teen drama shows,  I am trying to draw the connection between big name shows that teens watch and how the characters within them deal with the weight of themselves and others.

Recognizing the sort of media that influences teens could be a productive way to begin to better understand and combat the issue of disordered eating and begin to develop healthy relationships with food and our bodies from a young age.