Welcome to Fatness In Film, a monthly column analysing examples of fat representation and body diversity on screen.
When I first watched My Mad Fat Diary, I wasn’t ready for it.
Based on the collection of teenage diary entries by Rae Earl, the Channel 4 show follows protagonist Rae (Sharon Rooney) as she is released from a psychiatric hospital after a severe incident of self-harm. Having been treated for months for her depression, anxiety and disordered eating, she is flung back out in the world, and struggles with fitting back into normal life. After reuniting with her childhood best friend Chloe (Jodie Comer, showcasing her genius long before Villanelle came along), she finds a new group of pals. With the help of them and her therapist Kester (Ian Hart), she navigates her way through a new family life, falling in love and going to college.
When I first watched My Mad Fat Diary, I wasn’t ready to see my own struggles with disordered eating mirrored back at me quite so completely – but there they were, clear as day. Almost immediately, we’re given clues to Rae’s troubles with food. There’s a glimpse of a drawer filled with empty wrappers, refusing to eat a Blue Riband in the car on the way home from the hospital, and the mantra that she repeats to herself over and over: “there is a difference between snacking and binging, and I don’t binge any more”.
Though Rae is never specifically diagnosed as having binge eating disorder during the show, the signs are all there, and she herself confirms that she doesn’t purge after her binges – “I am a body dysmorphic, without the dysmorphic. I am a bulimic, without the sick. I am fat”. She turns to food for comfort – in particular, the stash of cakes, biscuits, chocolate and more in a cupboard at home. Like a big red self-destruct button that begs to be pressed, the cupboard calls to her when she is at her most vulnerable. At times, the fantasy elements of the show give it a heavenly light, promising Rae some kind of peace and soothing if only she would open it and devour what’s inside.
In the first episode, the cupboard wins. After a humiliating incident where Rae was forced to leave a store in the middle of trying on a bikini, the cupboard’s beckoning is more intrusive than ever. She tries to count to ten to get the compulsion to pass, but only reaches nine. She opens the doors, and the warm light engulfs her for a moment before they slam shut, the screen turning black. When the image fades back into view, it is Rae sat, alone, at her dining table, with only a sea of empty food wrappers for company. Amongst the chews, she stands and quietly, with resignation, closes the blinds. For binge eaters, there is no greater shame than being caught in the act.
For Rae, being seen to eat is just as traumatic as her relationship with food itself, but it’s only in the second season that the extent of this is fully revealed. After breaking up with Finn (Nico Mirallegro), Rae is feeling extremely isolated at college, and food appears to be her only friend left – but one that must be consumed far from prying eyes. Rae slips away to the library – “At college, there’s only one place you can go if you want some privacy” – and unwraps a walnut whip under the table, before quickly popping it in her mouth.
When one of the popular girls spots her during this ritual, Rae so clearly articulates the double-edged sword of fatphobia, and why eating in front of others can be challenging for those in a bigger body: “if I eat unhealthy food then people will think, ‘look at that fat cow, no wonder she got to that size’ – and if I eat healthy food, then they think ‘well, who are you trying to kid, love? You didn’t get to that size eating salads’”.
With this and many other elements of Rae’s relationship with food, My Mad Fat Diary boldly takes the deepest, darkest parts of disordered eating and thrusts them onto the screen. It does this not only with blistering authenticity, but with complete empathy, too – something that is far too rarely evoked for fat characters. Watching Rae interact with the people and world around her, is it any wonder she has developed such distressing eating behaviours? As her mum (Claire Rushbrook) embarks on one ridiculous diet after another, and Chloe reinforces the idea that fat girls don’t get to have boyfriends – “I know boys don’t like it, but that’s just the way they are!” – is it any wonder that Rae’s preoccupation with food affects her life in so many other ways?
Disordered eating is about much more than just food, and so it impacts far more than just the number on the scale. It sinks its claws into every aspect of you; the pain it inflicts becomes a lens through which you see the world.
Aside from the physical effects on her body, Rae’s binge eating is often the underlying source of her mental distress in other areas. She expresses her extreme lust and desire with joyful abandon in her diary, but when presented with an actual hot boy – Finn – who wants to sleep with her, her fear of exposing her naked body prevents her from acting on that desire in real life. She then ends things with Finn because she is overwhelmed by the judgement of others – both in reality, and perceived by her – about why someone like him would actually be going out with someone like her. She is, understandably, so submerged in her own troubles that she is completely oblivious to how best friend Chloe is struggling; she mistakenly believes that someone as thin and conventionally beautiful as Chloe couldn’t possibly have anything other than a perfect life.
My Mad Fat Diary stands out from the canon of eating disorders in film and television simply because it’s so rare for media exploring this kind of mental illness to focus on a fat protagonist. Google ‘films featuring eating disorders’ and the results are primarily stories about anorexia nervosa, or sometimes bulimia nervosa. They show up as side plots in films like Heathers and Girl, Interrupted, real life tragedies like Superstar: The Karen Carpenter story, or gritty dramas about middle-class white girls with tiny bodies and visible rib cages – like the recent Lily Collins-starring Netflix film To The Bone, or Lucy Brydon’s debut feature Body of Water.
Anorexia and bulimia are both extremely devastating conditions – anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – and they are what our society generally thinks of when it comes to eating disorders. They are what we see most often, across TV shows and feature films and Louis Theroux documentaries. But to only recognise depictions of eating disorders as those featuring emaciated white bodies is to minimise a vast range of experiences – it erases illnesses like binge eating disorder, and orthorexia (an obsession with eating ‘pure’, ‘healthy’ food), and pica (a compulsion to eat non-food items; see Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow), and many other eating disorders that aren’t yet specified (EDNOS).
When I first watched My Mad Fat Diary, I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for how it made me feel. Even as I rewatch the show years later, its relentless honesty still manages to send adrenaline coursing through my body. I feel tension brought on by seeing Rae’s vulnerabilities laid bare as though they were mine – they are mine. What I expected was to be mocked, laughed at, judged; just another show where fat people are the punchline. What I got was something else entirely. I got Rae, aka. the most complex, three-dimensional fat character I’ve ever seen. I got a love story where someone with a body like mine, and all the challenges that can bring, still gets the guy of her dreams.
I got the gift of knowing – all those dark, weird, painful thoughts you have about food, and your body, and how those things affect your life? Yeah – other people have them too. So thank you, My Mad Fat Diary, for telling me that. My life hasn’t been the same since.