Insatiable, S2: let's binge on mental health awareness done right

Illustration: Julie K.

Let's not sugarcoat mental health issues. And for the love of cake, it's about time we bury that self-righteous do-gooder's prejudice about eating disorders (the one where it only happens to very skinny people or morbidly obese people, and anyway it's their fault for being self-obsessed in the first place). And yes, this article will be peppered with references to food, because the dark comedy genre of Insatiable is just too tasty to not go along with (also, I agree with the show makers that eating disorders are a difficult topic, and it's sometimes important to lighten the tone somewhat).

 

If you haven't heard of it or haven't watched it yet (because it got badmouthed by half-rigorous media, because the plot seemed weird, or because you just didn't get to it), this original Netflix series is about a high-school girl with an eating disorder, who used to be fat but lost an incredible amount of weight after she was punched in the face and couldn't eat solid food for two months, and how she seeks revenge on all of her former bullies. There you go.

Now the second season is available on Netflix (including Netflix France), and you should totally drop anything you're doing right now and go binge the show. I've found it to be particularly nutritious and refreshing on the topics of mental health issues, mental health awareness, bullying, career stress and family support.

 

If you're personally struggling with an eating disorder, bullying or an addiction, or if you're close to someone who has/still does, I'd doubly recommend watching Insatiable.

First because there is no shaming of the bingeing disorder the main character suffers from. Then because Netflix didn't choose to focus on anorexia (pretty much the only eating disorder mentioned in movies) but rather on an eating disorder that's even more stigmatized and much less explored. And because the dark comedy genre helps a lot: it's good to see your mental health issue finally represented on TV... but it's also emotionally challenging, so the distraction is very welcome. And finally, because the message that Insatiable is sending is, loud and clear :

 

  • That losing weight is not the solution to your distress (the obsession with losing weight is actually often part of the problem)

 

  • That people who have an eating disorder don't necessarily look obese nor sickly thin

 

  • That eating disorders are mental illnesses (not bad choices, moral weakness or even a biological issue), requiring mental health therapy

 

  • That people who struggle with bingeing or purging (for example) are people who first and foremost suffer from it, not heroes nor despicable weaklings

 

  • That bullying can create or exacerbate a mental health issue

 

We need to change society from the inside and to stop judging people based on their looks (read: educating the masses requires more shows like this one). We need to help and allow those who suffer from an eating disorder to focus on improving their mental health (read: expand the budget for hospitals and mental healthcare!). We need to closely monitor people who face adversity, especially in their young years (losing or missing a parent, abuse or assault, struggling in school, having a disability, being part of a minority...), so that we can provide adequate and practical support as soon as needed. We need to normalize therapy (something that Insatiable, admittedly, fails to do so far). We need to provide nutritious food for everyone and to get rid of all the ingredients we ingest daily and which only make our addictions stronger (knowing that we are not born equal in the face of addiction): white sugar, white flour, additives...

But in the meantime, again, go and watch the show.

 

If you're still hung up on the harsh critics the first season received, here's a few responses to those. My read of all the negative press coverage of the first season of Insatiable is that movie critics simply focused on their popcorn while sitting in front of the trailer, and then didn't bother watching the actual thing. They were so eager to show they were on the sugary side of the Force, promoting mental well-being and squeaking every time they heard the word fat, savoring in advance the extra 20% clicks on their oven-hot headline, that they went and published a scathing article on a topic they didn't know a damn thing about.

 

Fatphobic? Because they put the actress in a fat suit for two minutes at the beginning of the first episode? Well, the whole plot of the series is that she's fat and then she gets skinny (and that being skinny doesn't make you a better person, nor does it automatically lead to happiness). So they had to cast a skinny actress. It would actually have been worse to try and cast a fat actress for a few episodes, then leave her aside and continue with skinny Debby Ryan. Yes, fat suits are a problem when they're used for a whole filming, either instead of an actual fact actor or actress, or in order to make fun and degrade fat bodies.

But I think it might be because Patty's character is described as fat all along. And for Hollywood's mostly fake awareness, fat is a bad word, an insult. Well, it's not, we need to get the word out about that, and Insatiable makes an excellent work of pointing that out.

Also, seeing the main character stuffing her face (literally) with cake when she feels awful and abandoned, is not just realistic (pretty skinny girls, when they eat on TV, are always sexy and always graceful), it's also not disgusting (as fat girls on TV are always portrayed) -- only sad and calling for empathy.

 

LGBTQ-phobic? Yes, the main character's lesbian best friend gets together with the first lesbian she meets, a usual in Hollywood that I wish the show hadn't followed.

But Insatiable also dedicates a (pretty hilarious) good portion of the show to bisexuality -- without falling into the typical storyline of bisexual people being into BDSM and trying to sleep with as many people as they can -- when bi-erasure is so incredibly common on TV as well as books, music, and the like. Between the first and the second season, the show even goes into the territory of threesomes, open relationships and dating for older people (read: beyond the age of 30). And that's uncommon enough to be mentioned and celebrated.

 

Stupid sexual jokes? It's a dark comedy, guys. The sexual jokes are stupid because the characters saying them are acting stupid at that moment and the message is, you can and should do better than them. Also, sometimes stupid jokes (if they're not offensive) just help lighten the atmosphere and that can go a long way when you're focusing on a mental illness.

 

Bonuses: the show doesn't stop at a binge-eating disorder, it also mentions alcohol addiction and anorexia, delicately steps into the suicidality zone, doesn't solely focus on high-school-aged people, deals with feelings of treason and abandonment (common in people with Borderline Personality Disorder for instance), makes the local hot guy intellectually boring (and very much limits his time on screen), celebrates the brightness of girls (fat or not, LGBTQ or not, young or not), and the main character is far from perfect -- in fact, she makes a bunch of bad decisions that portray her in a very realistic way, preventing the viewer from unconditionally supporting her. People who suffer aren't always innocent angels: they're actually just like everyone else. But making bad or irrational decisions also doesn't mean you don't deserve to be happy.

 

Also, so far the second season (which I am not done watching) is not trying to change its message nor the way it conveys that message, something I was pretty worried about after the first season backlash.

And if you're afraid the show is going to trigger you but still want to watch, I suggest some things to help:

 

  • Watch the show with someone you love and who's aware of your mental health issues

 

  • Schedule some calm and self-care time both before and after the show (about an hour or half-hour with a book, a hot beverage, calming music and/or a bath, no work and no stressful event)

 

  • Use a mental health app like Moodpath or just write down how you feel a few times a day for the whole duration of the time you watch Insatiable. If, after a few episodes, you notice that your mood has been significantly negatively affected, I suggest you do stop watching

 

  • Talk about the show with your therapist if you have one

 

 

Going further

 

  • Visit Gurls Talk, an online platform that was started by supermodel Adwoa Aboah to help young girls and women discuss mental health, education, sexuality, etc.

 

  • Reach out to NEDA's helpline (National Eating Disorders Association) and get more information on eating disorders by visiting their website 

 

  • Reach out to Beat in the UK, who also have a helpline and a useful website 

 

 

My 26th coming-out: Insane's founder on her mental illnesses
I feel better, Mom, a letter you could write