When the trailer for Netflix’s series Insatiable first dropped the summer of 2018, the backlash was immediate. Twitter and Facebook users alike railed against the tired synopsis of seventeen-year-old former-fat-girl Patty, whose life is turned upside-down when she loses a whopping seventy pounds. Returning to school skinny and angry (maybe from the hunger?), Patty proceeds to get revenge on those who bullied her when she was fat.
The story is an overused one, reminding many of 80s paperbacks and teen horror flicks, and the thin=better message didn’t particularly gel with the burgeoning fat acceptance movement. And while the subsequent release of Insatiable a month later was met with overwhelmingly negative critical reception — it didn’t help that over 100,000 people signed an online petition demanding the show’s cancellation — there is one thing, in my opinion, the show did get right.
In the tenth episode of Season 1, Patty has a binge eating episode. And not in a good-humored, girl-eating-calorically-dense-food-yet-remaining-thin kind of way. It’s actually a sad scene. Disturbing, even. Because when revenge-bent Patty is confronted by her mentor and love interest Bob Armstrong, who calls her out on her internal ugliness, Patty goes home alone to her empty kitchen, birthday cake in hand. As she miserably sits down to light the candles, an ominous melody begins to play.
“Who cared what I ate? I just didn’t want to feel this pain. I didn’t want to feel anything at all. So I turned to the only friend I had left.”
Patty’s only friend, in this case, is food.
When I first watched this scene, I was stunned. How alien it was, to see a young woman dully dig into a sheet cake with a fork, before abandoning it with a clatter to shove crumbling pieces, bare-handed, into her mouth. Even when the music dissipates and the screen fades to black, we can still hear the mournful chewing of Patty as she chases the comforting rush of processed sugar hitting the brain.
Unlike Patty, I didn’t struggle with binge eating until after I lost weight. I was twenty-one years old and, thanks to an unhappy summer of dieting, finally at a supposed “healthy” weight for my height. It was only then that I found myself, for the first time, going on eating sprees that felt out of control. While sometimes I could eat intuitively, many days often turned into an intoxicating blur of the tastiest foods I could find. Down my throat I crammed heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter, sleeves of crackers and cookies, donuts, slices of cake. At best, these episodes led to feelings of embarrassment and regret. At worst, they led to stomach pains so intense I could barely move.
Once, after apologizing to my roommate for stealing her food yet again during one of my binges, I baked her a pumpkin pie as a conciliatory gift. She never got it. Instead, I ate it in one sitting on the floor of her kitchen, pushing forkful after forkful into my mouth while she lay fast asleep in the other room.
When it comes to eating disorders, the media doesn’t usually portray the binges. Instead, it reserves a particular fascination for the illnesses where food is notoriously absent. From Starving in Suburbia (2014) to To the Bone (2017), we see the same victim again and again: a young, white female with sinewy muscles and protruding bones, a concave belly and wrists so tiny they look as though they are about to snap. These girls are dying, and yet in their doe-eyed, birdlike fragility, the camera objectifies them all the same.
Binge eating disorder isn’t so easily romanticized. In a society that demonizes overconsumption and is terrified of weight gain, overeating is usually nothing more than a punchline. When the consumption is taken to extremes, the act is rendered a character flaw, proof of the person’s lack of self-discipline, of willpower. If the disorder is portrayed at all.
This I find interesting, because according to the National Eating Disorders Association, binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the western world. According to a 2007 study of nearly ten thousand American participants, 3.5% of women and 2.0% of men suffer from BED during their lifetime. This means that BED is more than three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. Considering the shame that often comes with this disorder, the numbers are likely even higher.
Insatiable will always be a flawed show. But in spite of its imperfections — Debby Ryan wearing an actual fat suit in 2018 wasn’t exactly with the times — it did make one significant step forward. It demonstrated a chronically under-portrayed illness thousands, potentially millions, of people go through. And as I continue to struggle with the disorder myself, I find myself returning again and again to that particular scene.
Because when I see Patty, so unhappy even as she continues to push cake into her mouth, I feel a visceral sense of empathy.
She reminds me that I am not alone.