The Glamorisation of Eating Disorders in Glee

I recently re-watched one of my favourite T.V shows; Glee.

Glee: Season One, Episode Twelve: Mattress

The first three seasons are absolutely iconic to my teenage self and although I do find them difficult to re-watch due to the tragic passing of Cory Monteith in 2013, I still have a great appreciation for Ryan Murphy, the cast, the characters and the messages they convey — well, mostly.

The series follows a Spanish teacher at William McKinley high school, Will Schuester, who decides to take over the school’s glee club (the New Directions). Maybe it’s to ease that burning sensation he has to rap Sisqo or perhaps the itch driving him to dance with underage kids to Britney Spears’ Toxic but I digress. Although it starts off with only a small number of “losers” and “geeks”, eventually this club exceeds expectations and becomes somewhat of a safe haven for kids to come to and express their feelings via song.

Glee: Season One, Episode One: Pilot

From tackling issues of bullying and homophobia to encouraging people to follow their dreams — Glee is one of the sweetest and most wholesome shows I’ve seen. Except for that school shooting episode, which in my opinion was in really poor taste and a little cringy to watch.

At the end of season 3, we see a number of the New Directions members graduate, this leaves vacancies to be filled in season 4 and we are introduced to Marley Rose, Kitty Wilde, Jake Puckerman and Ryder Lynn.

For the time being, let’s just focus on Marley. Marley Rose is a sophomore who lives in poverty with her mother, Millie. Her mother works as the school’s lunch lady, makes all of Marley’s clothes and is morbidly obese. I don’t like describing someone with their weight but in this case, it is relevant.

Glee: Season Four, Episode One: The New Rachel

When “mean girl” Kitty “befriends” Marley, she essentially convinces her that in order to avoid becoming overweight like her mother she should force herself to purge. Kitty even goes to great lengths to make Marley think she’s dramatically gaining weight and the “fat gene” is creeping its way into her life — yep, it’s a whole thing.

I know teenagers can be susceptible and easily influenced by their peers, so the thought of Marley being introduced to purging by Kitty seems plausible and I didn’t find this to be problematic.

Let’s jump forward to episode 6 of season 4 — Glease. For the school musical, the Glee kids decide to perform Grease and yes, it’s as fabulous as it sounds. The sets, the costumes, the music — everything! Although Rachel Berry still looks like a sad clown hooker in that costume four years later, I can admit it still plucks a little nostalgic string in my heart.

Glee: Season One, Episode Eleven: Hairography
Glee: Season Four, Episode Six: Glease

So, pretty much before going on stage Marley is seen in the bathroom throwing up (I think?) when her love interest Ryder walks in and tells her a story of his cousin who struggled with laxative abuse then shit himself in front of the entire school. I actually liked this little part, I know a couple of people who have had something similar happen to them as a result of laxatives and come on, if you haven’t shit yourself as an adult — are you even a real adult?

He then proceeds to state “I don’t want to kiss a girl who’s got puke on her breath.”

A few things I found off-putting about this scene and Marley’s storyline.

First; the reasons I dropped the somewhat passive-aggressive “I think” is because once Marley puts her head up from the toilet, she looks fine — actually if anything she looks hot. No running mascara because of the involuntary tears produced, no bloodshot eyes, no swollen face, no saliva soaked hands from the continues efforts to get the content of your stomach back to zero. Nope, none of the gritty realism of bulimia.

Fun fact: no one looks hot after they’ve purged.

Glee: Season Four, Episode Six: Glease

Second; if you’re a person with a Borderline Personality Disorder, or even tendencies or traits, it almost feels like you’re waiting for someone to come into your life to “fix” things. My word isn’t gospel so this might not be true for everyone but it’s something I found true for myself.

Having Ryder come in and drop the butt-clenching, cringe-worthy line of “I don’t want to kiss a girl who’s got puke on her breath.” and playing the role of a “saviour” somewhat implies that your problems can be cured or lessened if you have someone else there and that’s just not the reality of things. I love Murphy and a lot of his creative choices but this one fell flat.

And third; after this Marley continues to purge and restrict eventually causing her to pass out on stage. The issue isn’t her passing out, it’s the after-effects which annoyed me. The team is mad at her because it cost them the competition, which to an extent is understandable; they’re kids, they lost, they’re angry. But it seems like almost immediately Marley stops her behaviours, there’s no relapse, there’s just that “wake up call”, some therapy and it all seems ok.

Glee: Season Four, Episode Eight: Thanksgiving

If it were real life;

The effects of bulimia don’t just come and go with a boy and a bit of therapy. Yes, you can argue that Marley’s behaviours were caught early thus preventing it from having such an impact on her life. But I expect more from Glee. If you want to know what an eating disorder really looks like, we can happily rewrite this storyline for you.

Due to excessive purging Marley could pull a muscle out in her back and wake up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain as I did once. Or perhaps she threw up blood or purged so hard it causes the blood vessels in her eyes to burst, leaving the sclera completely red like two of my girlfriend’s experiences — yes, it’s a thing and it’s terrifying.

Tooth decay and stains from the acid in the stomach constantly coming up, scarring on the knuckles, dry skin, hair loss, hospital admissions and being forced to leave your school because you are a liability. These are what eating disorder cause and can lead to.

Here’s a fun diagram I found on the internet about more fun things that can happen as a result of purging.

I’m not here to bag out Glee, I love that show. It changed my life, taught me to follow my dreams and to love myself the way I am. But I am disappointed with the portrayal of eating disorders, I think the show had an opportunity to shine a light on the true horrible realities of a mental illness that can consume your entire life and it just didn’t — if anything it was glamorised.

Sydney based writer taking a look into culture, media and mental health. For business enquiries please contact via linkedin.com/in/lidya-saliba/

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