Words by Film and TV editor Emma Norris
*TW: Discussion of eating disorder behaviours and self harm*
It is estimated that, in the UK, approximately 1.25 million people suffer from some kind of eating disorder (https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics/). The way in which these are represented in contemporary film and tv has, time after time, appeared inaccurate, insensitive or glamorising; the character of Cassie in Skins, whose character is built entirely around her struggle with anorexia or Netflix film To The Bone, which displays highly insensitive scenes of eating disorder suffering and recovery, to name just a couple of examples. Unfortunately, new-release Spencer is no different in its controversial representation of Princess Diana’s struggle with bulimia, receiving criticism from eating disorder charity BEAT.
As someone who has struggled with disordered eating for most of my teenage life, I found the representation of bulimia in Spencer to be particularly troubling in its explicit and graphic portrayal of both disordered eating behaviour and self harm. Despite showing no evidence of this in the trailer, and a limited warning in its 12A age rating, the film depicts multiple instances of Diana, played by Kirsten Stewart, self-induced vomiting, as well as a scene in which she self-harms with a pair of wire cutters. Eating disorders can be highly competitive illnesses and so, whilst it is important that they are spoken about, to display clear instances of bulimia and self-harm with little warning, has the potential to be very upsetting or triggering to those struggling from some kind of disordered eating. At times in the film, it felt as though Diana’s bulimia served to provide a certain shock factor (for example, a close up shot of her putting her fingers down her throat), as opposed to a genuine representation of her illness. Eating disorders are much more than physical behaviours; they carry a vast array of mental and social symptoms, and whilst it is made clear that Diana’s illness is all-consuming, at times the representation seemed to conform to the stereotype that to have an eating disorder is to simply not eat.
What I found most frustrating about the film was the fact that Diana’s character appeared to revolve primarily around her having an eating disorder, with little attention paid to other aspects of her personality and story. The film is described to be a fictionalised account of Diana’s decision to end her marriage and leave the Royal Family but, in reality, most of the films focus is on the gradual decline in the protagonists mental health, revolving largely around her struggle with bulimia. Eating disorders can be all-consuming for their sufferers and so it is appropriate for this to be reflected in their representation but, likewise, people suffering from an eating disorder should not be defined by this; mental illnesses are not a personality trait. To the film’s credit however, it was refreshing to see the presentation of an eating disorder other than anorexia and similarly, to see the realistic presentation of what it means to live with an eating disorder; terrifying and life-destroying as opposed to quirky and glamorous. My grievance is with the fact that very little attention was given to important areas of her life, making this more a film about her eating disorder than her divorce.
Representation is so important, but it must be responsible. It is clear that there is still a lot of work to do in order for eating disorders to receive appropriate representation in film and tv. Whilst it is so important that films such as Spencer give time to discussing these illnesses, they must be handled with sensitivity in order to portray an accurate depiction.
I would strongly recommend anyone affected by the issues addressed in this article to look at the amazing resources UK charity BEAT have on their website: https:/www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk