April 20, 2023

Eating Disorder Exploitation in Entertainment: Helping the Artists and Their Fans

Drs. Jane Harness, Maria Tocco, and Natalie Prohaska published an article in Psychiatric Times

Link to the original article on psychiatrictimes.com

Many artists who have struggled with an eating disorder are generating content that is promoted by the entertainment industry, and when these conditions go unaddressed, the content has the potential to influence consumers.


In the biopsychosocial assessment model of eating disorders (EDs), social factors influencing these diagnoses often involve considering the patient’s relationship with media. This may range from pro-ED content on social media platforms, to songs, movies, or TV shows about living with an ED. It is important to understand the positive and negative influences of ED-related media in a patient’s life, especially if these influences are perpetuating factors for the disorder. A key factor for ED recovery may involve engaging with patients to limit influences which appear to worsen ED symptoms.

Many artists who have struggled with an ED are generating content that is promoted by the entertainment industry. When these conditions go unaddressed, the artists’ content has the potential to influence its consumers.

Entertainment Industry Exploitation

With mental health awareness on the rise, it is increasingly common to hear celebrities discuss their mental health and even express their challenges in their art. However, when the entertainment industry lacks standards for intervention when their talent’s suffering is evident in their lyrics, it sends a powerful message to society about which health issues are ignored and which are addressed. For example, the struggles with mental illness and substance abuse are apparent in music by artists such as Juice WRLD and Amy Winehouse and makes one wonder what their management teams were doing to help before their untimely deaths. It would be difficult to ignore the warning signs present, especially because their lyrics blatantly depicted their struggles.

Warning signs of active ED symptoms are certainly present in the art of celebrities creating ED-related media. One such example is the Netflix film “To the Bone,” starring Lily Collins. Collins has publicly discussed her ED diagnosis, as well as her intentional 20-pound weight loss for the role. Project HEAL, whose mission is to “break down systemic, healthcare, and financial barriers to ED healing,”1 partnered with the film in 2017. In a statement, they noted their involvement began after filming had completed and asserted, “we in no way intend to endorse the idea that people with anorexia nervosa can lose weight safely… there is strong research showing that getting into a state of negative energy balance and/or losing weight can make people who have struggled with anorexia nervosa much more prone to a relapse.”2 Therefore it is problematic that the production team disseminated misinformation that Collins’ weight loss was done in a healthy/safe/controlled way. It is also important to consider that the content in the film itself could be triggering to and/or influence disordered eating behaviors in viewers.

Another example of this category of ED-related media is the music from Sara Kays. One cannot listen to her music without wondering what her management team is doing to help as she describes struggling with ED-related thoughts and behaviors. In a TikTok video, she shared the titles of her fans’ Spotify playlists that contain her music, which include, “im so ugly and i hate myself,” “Drowning in my depression,” “I f---ing hate myself,” “im so f---ing ugly and fat i just want to die,” “slowly giving up on everything..<3,” and “I Hate My Body and I Want To Be Skinny.”3 In a very painful-to-watch interview in front of a live audience,4 Kays is asked, “Are all these [mental health struggles] still very much a part of your soul and sort of your songwriting process?” to which Kays responds, “Do you mean have I gotten better, or…?” The interviewer appears to awkwardly change the subject to writing in the third person, avoiding a discussion about her current recovery. This interview could serve as a microcosm of public perception of how artists with mental illness are treated by the entertainment industry: exploitative with half-hearted and ill-timed attempts to address the condition. When media consumers witness their favorite artists continue to struggle with serious mental health conditions, they may lose hope for themselves or even begin to romanticize the illness.

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