What The Whale Doesn’t Say About Eating Disorders

Please note that this article contains explicit discussion of eating disorders.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale has a lot to say about eating disorders – but what it doesn’t say is the most interesting part.

Starring Brendan Fraser (who, yes, is brilliant, and who, yes, I am delighted to see return to the big screen with such a challenging role), the movie follows Charlie (Fraser), an English teacher in the last few days of his life as his congestive heart failure takes hold. After years of struggling with disordered eating following the death of his partner, he uses binge eating to cope with his impending death as he attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

I had bulimia for several years, and, while it’s certainly not the same thing as binge eating disorder (BED), it does feature binging as part of the diagnostic criteria. As far as the depiction of binging in The Whale goes, I actually found it uncomfortably accurate – the relief and comfort in over-eating, the consumption of food to the point of physical discomfort and vomiting, the way that nothing can come close to being enough. Some people with BED have shared their own connection with the movie, and how accurately they felt it captured aspects of their disorder. Those sequences of Charlie’s binge eating are powerful and decidedly uncomfortable, the physical impact of his suffering presented bluntly, both in the immediate and long-term health implications of what he is going through. Charlie is dying because of his eating disorder; it’s one of the first things the film tells us about him, the running themes of The Whale as a whole.

And it got me to thinking about other films that deal with eating disorders, specifically, the representation of anorexia and other restrictive disorders, especially those that depict those at a very low weight in comparison to Charlie’s very high weight. And, honestly – I can’t think of a comparable representation of those disorders.

Because The Whale repeatedly shows Charlie using disordered behaviours as a way to manage his feelings, directly responding to strong emotions through binge eating; we see the parts of the disorder which are the most visceral, involuntarily vomiting due to over-eating, nearly choking to death on binge food. We’re meant to see the actual struggle here, the suffering, the pain and compulsion that comes with having an eating disorder.

But when it comes to restrictive disorders, I can’t think of a decent comparison point. In movies about anorexia and other restrictive eating disorders, we don’t see the “disgusting” side. We don’t see the bags of vomit hidden under the bed, we don’t see the nails peeling off or the hair falling out, we don’t see the bones weakening and wasting, we don’t see the people choking on toothbrushes, we don’t see people shitting themselves in public after taking too many laxatives. To reference another one of Darren Aronofsky’s movies that deals with extreme disordered eating, Black Swan, the most we see of Natalie Portman’s character in that movie is her wanly turning down food and checking her waist as it gets thinner and thinner, met with praise from those around her. After the movie came out, the Black Swan diet became a brief cultural fad, a way to achieve Portman’s emaciated and underweight frame. Even though they’re both depicting disordered eating, it’s hard to imagine The Whale getting the same treatment, right?

And the difference between them, let’s not be obtuse, is because society at large and Hollywood in particular venerate thinness over fatness. And the level of thinness or low body fat it often demands often comes as a result of engaging with disordered eating habits. It’s Julianne Moore admitting she’s been hungry for her whole career, Zac Efron losing his mind on a diet for Baywatch, Jane Fonda sure she would be dead by thirty due to her bulimia, and so many other stories from other people we haven’t heard from yet because it benefits someone to make the public believe that their bodies are enviable enough to ignore how they have achieved them.

The Whale can go into detail about the effects of BED when it comes to weight gain, because it’s an outlier: because it’s showing a body that has been affected by this disorder in a way that takes it outside of the societal ideal. But it’s hard to imagine a movie as mainstream as The Whale depicting the true, visceral, and non-culturally-venerated parts of restrictive eating disorders. Showing how the metaphorical sausage is made when it comes to extreme thinness in such brutal clarity would be too dangerous, when the other dozen screens in the cinema will probably be showing movies that star people who’ve used some of those techniques to achieve the body they’re being celebrated for.

There is no such thing as an “easy” eating disorder, or one that doesn’t impact the health and wellbeing of the person suffering with it. When I talk about the depiction of binge eating disorder in The Whale, I’m not trying to downplay the importance of showing these behaviours in explicit detail, nor am I saying that a movie about restrictive disorders would be more valuable. But I do find it very interesting that The Whale has made such a big splash culturally, and how it compares to other movies about eating disorders – and I wonder when, if ever, we’ll get a movie that delves in such explicit detail into other disorders, too.

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By Lou MacGregor

(header image via IMDB)


  1. Maria

    Great article. The movie To The Bone in Netflix, I thinks is one the few that represents anorexia as it is – faints, lose of hair and her period… It still has some flaws, but it remember me a lot of The Whale. They both got no filter when showing what eating disorders do to the body and health.

    Liked by 1 person

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