Popular media doesn’t usually do a very good job at depicting eating disorders and the effects of them. Pretty Little Liars was no different in Season 1 when it attempted to delve into Hanna Marin and her journey as “Hefty Hanna.”
It’s crucial to note that while, at least, Pretty Little Liars attempted to tackle depicting an eating disorder, especially one aside from anorexia which is usually the only disorder ever mentioned, the incredibly botched attempt did more harm than good. Hanna Marin and her eating disorder got about half an episode of focus, and then it was dropped; the writers didn’t even do well diving into the type of “friend” Alison was for what she encouraged Hanna to do, and then they just tried to wrap it all in a tiny bow.
Alison vs. Aria
The reactions of these two girls could not have been more different. Personally, I was impressed by how Aria came to Hanna’s aid and tried to help her find a healthy way out, encouraging being healthy and discouraging the process that Alison suggested. Aria considered Hanna’s wellbeing, whereas Alison was incredibly selfish, yet again. Aria stood up for Hanna and made her feel like she was safe; she didn’t displace her, or make her feel like she was pathetic or had anything to be ashamed about. Alison did.
Alison: I understand… You don’t have to feel this way. I can show you how to get rid of it.
Alison saying she understood was incredibly insulting to Hanna, and to the story. Saying you understand someone who has an eating disorder, when you don’t, doesn’t help. Hanna wasn’t even given a chance to express how she was feeling or what drove her to bingeing; Alison immediately suggested that by throwing up, she’d feel okay again, and she’d be normal again. She went to a reaction that caused Hanna to feel more ashamed and more pathetic, especially since her “best friend” was always pointing out her weight and eating habits as a joke in front of everyone.
Alison made Hanna feel subhuman if she binged, and the only way to be “better” than that was to purge. No concern for Hanna’s wellbeing, what that process would do to her (emotionally and physically), nothing. It was all about Alison, and she genuinely thought she was helping Hanna, which is the worst part of it all.
Hanna’s eating disorder should’ve been explored much, much more on the show if they wanted to actually do it justice. The writers wrapped it up in a little bow to close the story, as if this was something Hanna wouldn’t be struggling with for a long time.
Hanna: Remember when I used to eat when I got nervous or felt bad? Alison walked in on me after a binge, and she was actually kind… or so I thought. She helped me throw up.
Aria: Hanna, that’s so dangerous.
Hanna: I know, and that was just such a low point in my life that I started taking better care of myself; I knew I could be stronger than that.
As someone who also has an eating disorder and has gone through similar things (in this sense) to Hanna, I can guarantee you that it doesn’t just get better. You can’t just decide to be “stronger than that” or to be better. This is something that is haunting, and the urge to binge doesn’t just go away. It can be gone for months and randomly appear again, and the urge will just be the same as it was before.
Painting this picture of an eating disorder is harmful for the story and for the viewers. Imagine also struggling with the same feelings Hanna was, and hearing her say that she just decided to be better. Suddenly you feel like you aren’t enough; you’re not strong enough to just be better, you’re not enough for your friends, you’re not enough in general. You can’t just flip the same switch and not struggle with the eating disorder anymore, and that’s seriously detrimental to anyone. The writers should’ve been trying to reach out and create a realistic, healthy storyline as Hanna dealt with her eating disorder again. Instead, they alienated the fans who do and showed them that, unless they want to try Alison’s method, they aren’t worth the time to help.
Popular media should be insistent on actually depicting accurate stories and making viewers have the chance to look to a character conquering their eating disorder as a symbol of strength. Instead, this series glossed over all of the hard parts and tied it together, never to revisit again. It’s a shame that such a popular series didn’t use the spotlight to take time away from all of the unrealistic, unnecessary drama to actually portray an issue that, I assume, different viewers may be struggling with. And that is why Pretty Little Liars failed to do anything successful with this storyline.