Internalized fatphobia has been a part of my life since the day I was born.
I was really thin growing up, and many people told me how lucky I was because of it. People in my family would ask me to lift up my shirt to show people how small my tummy was. I felt special and I felt accomplished.
When I was diagnosed with Polycystic-Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) at the age of 16, everything changed. I struggled with balancing my period, would break out in cystic acne at least once a month, and depression became a regular part of my everyday experience. I still had a few more years of being thin, but then when I hit 18 I suddenly gained 15kg.
I remember waking up on cold mornings in Cape Town, before going to class.
I would stare at myself in the mirror and repeat over and over again, “You are in control.”
I never was. I participated in a violent cycle of binge-eating the most unhealthy food I could afford and starving myself to make up for it. There were days where I would lie to everyone around me about how full I was, yet most of what I’d consumed was water and a Kit Kat.
I wish I could say that I’m fully recovered but I’m not. I still struggle with my eating disorder, and I’m working on being better. So when I heard about the release of Netflix’s To The Bone trailer, I knew I shouldn’t watch it. I knew it would lead me down a rabbit hole of guilt.
But I did. You can call me self-destructive.
I immediately wanted to vomit. Seeing the main character Ellen, played by Lily Collins, counting calories and slowly becoming gaunter as the trailer progressed was painful.
But Ellen herself: white, confident, and privileged sent shivers down my spine.
Growing up I was constantly surrounded by white girls who told me I wasn’t good enough. They were tall, thin and blonde-haired, they had the best clothes and walked as if they owned the world. They went to parties I wasn’t allowed to go to and made out with boys I knew I’d never had a chance with. One of my favorite memories is of someone I considered to be a best friend telling me that another white girl looked better in the same dress I was wearing because she was taller, thinner and blonder than I’d ever be.
It really fucking hurt.
So when I watched the trailer for To The Bone, I saw two sides of Ellen. I saw the girl I had been, the one who downloaded apps like MyFitnessPal to ‘keep track’ of my eating. In reality, I aimed for the warning sign that the app shows, telling the user that they were eating way below the recommended caloric count. I’d down water to keep myself from eating full meals, and when I felt faint I knew I was strong.
I knew I was in control.
Then I saw the Ellen I could never be. A confident, witty white girl with enough support to get her through her illness. I saw her friend in the show: a confident, witty white boy who would never look twice at me. I saw her teacher: a confident, witty white man who I know wouldn’t value me as much as his white patients.
And I get it, I know how people will respond. It’s easy to say that not all white people are like this and that white people have problems too.
People will also say that I’m blowing a movie trailer out of proportion. That I haven’t even seen the film, and that it is just a movie after all.
But the majority of white people I’ve met have been condescending, dismissive and cruel when it came to my self-image. I’ve had white doctors blame my Indian ethnicity as a reason for my mental health problems, and I’ve had white friends tell me I would be prettier with white skin.
And what we show young, impressionable audiences matters too. 13 Reasons Why is a prime example of this, even resulting in what might be a copycat.
I don’t believe that we should keep these kinds of conversations from young viewers. Ellen’s story of battling anorexia can be vital for someone who needs to see their experience reflected on the screen.
But then it’s obvious that we need to broaden the scope of whose experiences we portray.
I want to see more people of color in stories like these. So many of us deal with mental and physical illnesses that never get talked about because instead, our bodies are being used as buffers for white voices and experiences.
Representation matters, even in difficult conversations.