Netflix's "Tiny Pretty Things" challenges the idea that bulimia is only a white woman's disease
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This article originally appeared here on Salon.com
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Occasionally when I'm baking - braiding a loaf of egg yolk gold challa or draping a nearly translucent round of pie batter over freshly diced apples - I think of the day my figure skating coach brought a five-pound bag of all-purpose flour to the rink. "Imagine doing a double axle with two of these at your waist," she told me. It was January, our first training session after the holidays. I was 14, in the middle of puberty, and I was already very aware of the way my stomach was hanging over the waistband of my tights.
She propped the flour sack on the boards, pressed it gently between her short cherry-red nails, and asked if I had any questions as I slowly swirled back and forth. I do not have. She called after me as I went on a warm-up lap, "It's all about self-control, about taking care of yourself."
I only competed for a few more years after that - two concussions ended my career - but my coach's words remained like the scripture I had memorized so much from my youth. For a long time I equated wellness with discipline, discipline with thinness, thinness with kindness.
This was only compounded by the other activities I took up as an older teenager and young adult. When I first started competing in ballroom competitions, my trainer urged me to get "dressed up" and praised me gushingly as I lost 14 pounds in three weeks. I don't think he knew I did it by eating cottage cheese with salsa and walking up a steep incline on a treadmill for hours.
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This is what eating disorders do to you. They feel deeply isolated and alone, despite the fact that an estimated 8 million Americans have an eating disorder - seven million women and one million men, according to research by the National Eating Disorder Association.
For ballet dancers it is even more common; Linda Hamilton, a New York City psychologist who has worked with eating disorder ballet flats, told the Washington Post, "One in two dancers has an eating disorder. It's still an ongoing problem and it needs to be addressed as soon as ballet flats develop an eating disorder it's hard to recover. "
That's one of the reasons I braced myself for the inevitable subplot about eating disorders when I saw Netflix's new fictional teen drama, Tiny Pretty Things, about students at an elite ballet academy. When it finally arrived - and I know that sounds strange - I was pleasantly surprised. It was refreshing to see a media display of eating disorders that didn't focus on a white woman. This series focuses on a dancer's struggles.
"Tiny Pretty Things" is based on the hit novel for young adults by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra and the executive of Michael MacLennan, who wrote and produced shows such as "The Fosters" and "Queer as Folk".
It opens dramatically to a teenage girl, Cassie Shore (Anna Maiche), dancing on a rooftop in Chicago while a party is taking place nearby. She is approached by a hooded figure who presents her a white rose and, trying to resist her advancement, trips over the edge of the roof and hits the sidewalk below. This accident (or maybe an attempted murder?) Is in a coma.
Following Cassie's accident, Neveah Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson) is selected to take her place at the Archer School. Neveah, a black dancer from Inglewood, California, was chosen by the school's president, Monique (Lauren Holly), in hopes the public will notice the academy's interest in becoming more inclusive.
Much of the 10-episode series focuses on Neveah's efforts to adapt and move forward, as well as the very heightened drama that takes place at school. There's competition, sabotage, family problems, parties, a bizarre piece of Jack the Ripper choreo, and a lot of sex. Oh, and an answering officer who has the quotable line: "Look, I don't know a nutcracker from my night stick, but I know the danger when I see it."
It's not a perfect series; Issues like racism, weirdness and identity are sometimes mixed up amid the more soapy melodrama pieces. Think, as star Damon J. Gillespie aptly put it, "'Black Swan' meets 'Pretty Little Liars'."
But male dancer Oren Lennox (Barton Cowperthwaite )’s struggle with bulimia feels painfully real. It starts with an announcement from their choreographer Topher Brooks (Shaun Benson).
"I'm supposed to remind all men of their physical condition today," he said. "Maybe this is the kick in the ass some of you Fatsos need to lose a few."
Oren meticulously records his food intake. If you look closely, you can see the word "bad" next to some foods like licorice. He starts setting up scheduled days to bark and clean himself and starts holding a scale by his bed. Inevitably he gets dizzy and light-headed during training, but as he tells one of his fellow students, "he is finally getting results". Despite the fact that people are increasingly concerned about their health, it seems impossible to break this cycle.
As someone who was there, everything felt very familiar - and unlike some shows like "Degrassi" and "Beverly Hills 90210", not everything is in a one- or two-episode arc.
With Oren's story, "Tiny Pretty Things" also differs from the typical media depictions of eating disorders, which tend to focus on them as diseases of white women. We see this in the 1981 film "The Best Little Girl In The World," Netflix's "To the Bone," season four of "Glee," and even the most recent season of "The Crown," which explores Princess Diana's struggles with bulimia were.
These depictions vary in their respective sensitivities, and even as directors and actors try to develop nuance, many viewers struggling with eating disorders can find the media distressing. As Sophie Gilbert wrote in "The Atlantic" when the trailer for "To the Bone" was released, "It sparked a flurry of critics who stated that the film contained many images and scenes that could lead to anorexic recovery . "
The same goes for "Tiny Pretty Things". Some of the scenes that depict the purification of Oren are really, really hard to see. The series’s decision to feature a character who is not a white woman suffering from the disease, however, is more like the real variety of people in need of treatment.
Oren is white, however, and while body image is an ubiquitous undercurrent to everyone in the series, it is shown that none of the color characters in the series fights like him. However, data shows that eating disorders are becoming more common among people of color, especially women. It could have been interesting to see more concretely how Neveah deals with body image expectations in a sphere where thinness and white have long been valued.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behaviors such as binging and purging, while "In one study of adolescents, researchers found that Hispanics were significantly more likely to have bulimia nervosa than their non-Hispanic counterparts."
In addition, men, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community are less likely than white women to seek treatment for or be diagnosed with an eating disorder despite having identical symptoms.
In many ways, the lack of diversity in the portrayal of eating disorders reflects the lack of fictional color characters struggling with their sanity. In her 2017 essay "Bitch", Nyasha Junior writes: "The lack of images of African American women with mental illness, combined with the myth of the" strong black woman "contributes to the misconception of mental health problems as" white "- girl thing 'and adds to its stigma among African American women. "
Do we need more on-screen representations of eating disorders? It's a tough call. In Sophie Gilbert's "Atlantic" play, she spoke to Dr. Melissa Nishawala, the clinical director of the Eating Disorders Service at NYU Langone's Child Study Center.
"Because people struggling with anorexia nervosa often have an extreme urge to superlatives - to be the best student, feel most valued, and become the thinnest - any film showing anorexia nervosa risks the search to ignite after hunger, "said Nishawala to Gilbert. She advises filmmakers not to take pictures of bony figures, focus on numbers (calories or weights), or depict scenes of certain eating disorder behaviors.
Good or bad, "Tiny Pretty Things" does all of these things, but it also breaks down established cultural stereotypes about who is engaging in these behaviors and why. Maybe it could inspire someone who doesn't look like they normally play that role and seek the help they need.
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"Tiny Pretty Things" is currently being streamed on Netflix.
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