Renée explores the presentation of eating disorders in the new Netflix series 'Everything Now' as well as reflecting on her own experiences in comparison.

CW: Discussion of anorexia, mental illness, and suicide. 

I put off watching the new Netflix teen drama Everything Now, created by 22-year-old Ripley Parker, for a month after its release at the beginning of October. I was afraid that it would send me into a dangerous relapse. The show features a 16-year-old black British girl called Mia, played by Australian actress Sophie Wilde, who rejoins her sixth form after being hospitalised for anorexia. I was afraid that watching experiences so similar to mine would be triggering beyond belief. Some of my old emotions resurfaced, but I didn’t plummet into the death spiral I was so concerned about. Instead, the show made me realise how far I’ve come. It also made me reflect on the position of being mentally ill as a black teenage girl in England, and how the stories and lies I tell and have told still bar me from reaching the goal of food freedom. 


When I was diagnosed with anorexia and related depression in secondary school, one of the predominant emotions I felt was embarrassment. That might seem strange and outdated because there is currently so much emphasis on awareness and de-stigmatisation of mental illness in the education system and popular media in the West. But that was partially it – the prevalence of my condition in itself fuelled my embarrassment and shame. I felt a cliché of Western vanity and female self-centredness and fragility. Even now that I’m healthier I still sometimes do. It’s hard because anorexia does make you become self-centred, to some extent. Weight loss and cyclic self-punishment override your life and demand your total, unwavering attention. Meanwhile, other people dissolve into blurred, predominantly antagonistic figures. They become secondary characters, whilst anorexia takes the main stage. I know that at the height of my illness, I was not a good friend or girlfriend. I forgot my friend’s birthdays; I became a liar. I gaslighted people who loved me into thinking they were irrational and I actually hadn’t lost weight since last week, or that they were betraying me by reporting my scary, suicidal behaviour. 

In a family counselling scene from Everything Now, Mia’s father points out that she has become deceitful and ‘slightly self-centred’ since becoming ill. She is evidently wounded. It’s hurtful and embarrassing to be so closely observed and analysed. I remember it as one of the most painful parts of my experience. But by the end of the series, she is able to grapple with this, to simultaneously apologise to her friends and family for what she has put them through, and most importantly, to forgive herself for it. I have tried to do the same.  


Everything Now also thinks about the radiating effects of mental illness within a person’s family and circle of friends. Mia’s younger brother, Alex, lacks attention from his parents, whose focus (understandably) is on Mia and her illness. This generates feelings of resentment that he represses so as not to add to the stress of his sister’s illness and his parent’s dissolving marriage. When asked how he is doing, his response is always ‘fine.’ In the counselling scene, Alex spills out all his unsaid emotions in an explosive, cathartic moment – before we realise that this is within his head. He does not dare to voice his suffering and isolation. 

The term ‘glass children’ has recently come into usage to refer to people like Alex, whose sibling’s illnesses or disability causes their parents to ‘look right through them’ as though they are made of glass. They feel pressure to be peacekeepers and often minimise their own personal problems to avoid burdening their parents. His parents do not totally realise this by the end of the series, but it feels positive that Parker pays attention to his experience and validates it. 


No study has found differences in the likelihood of the development of eating disorders depending on race, but it was found by the Academy of Eating Disorders in 2013 that white people are twice as likely to be actually diagnosed with an eating disorder, in comparison to ethnic minorities. Cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is a possible reason for this racial discrepancy. Mental illness is a site of unwanted attention for ethnic minority families and is often misunderstood by older generations who are more concerned about providing for their families and setting up a strong foundation in a new country. 

Yet, problematically, the experience of growing up as an ethnic minority is often traumatising and conducive to mental illness. This is indicated by the fact that, according to several recent NHS surveys, black and black British people account for the greatest percentage of common mental health problems in the UK, are twice as likely as white people to have PTSD, and are more than four times as likely to be involuntarily hospitalised for mental illness. The statistics are unsurprising – increased levels of poverty, lack of support from older generations, and racial prejudice encountered in the everyday world are undoubtedly harmful to one’s mental state. 

Race isn’t talked about to a great extent in Everything Now, but the way that it informs the experience of mental illness is implicit, and something myself and others like me can relate to. It’s cohesive with the secrecy of restrictive disorders and the desire to divert attention away from one’s difference, to not stand out any more than you already do. From an early age, as the children of immigrant – especially African and Asian – families, we are encouraged to draw little attention to ourselves. Our physical appearances do that more than enough. Any extra notice people pay to us should be positive, lest we reinforce negative stereotypes about our race. It’s part of what drives the immense focus on academic excellence in African and Asian families in Britain. 

From childhood I have always had the sentiment ‘be twice as good’ drilled into me, meaning to excel in everything I do, so much so that it would be impossible for someone to ever question my capability without exposing themselves as being prejudiced. I don’t resent this motto of my upbringing – I think it’s the main reason for my academic successes. But that attitude meant that becoming as ill as I did created an enormous paradox for me. I remember overhearing a guy at a house party, who when trying to differentiate me from the only other black girl in my year, referred to me as the ‘crazy one’. The word ‘crazy’ racked me with nauseating shame. I was highly conscious that I was drawing negative attention to myself in school as well as at home, which I hated. But I also saw my illness as an opportunity to demonstrate my excellence and superior self-control, to be ‘the best’ at being ill, to starve my body more skilfully and with more discipline than anyone had ever done before. As Mia says to her doctor, I thought for a long time that if I recovered, I would have failed at this feat. And I couldn’t fail at anything. I had to be twice as good.  

Starving was also motivated by my desire for control, as is the case with many eating disorders. Specifically, I wanted to control other people’s perceptions of me. I was and still am deeply uncomfortable with being perceived as hypersexual, as black women so often are. I felt it was a distraction from the image of the perfect student that I had worked so hard to create. Making myself more flat-chested and physically androgynous calmed that anxiety. I thought I could reduce the visual attention I got by becoming sexless, epicene. Of course, that didn’t work. I never succeeded in erasing myself. I was picking at a scab and leaving a scar.

Even though mental illness is in fact even more prevalent in people of my ethnic background, having an eating disorder, along with other diagnoses, felt incompatible with the idea of hard-working, immigrant excellence that I modelled myself upon. I felt shamefully weak. I had been lucky enough to be born in one of the most developed countries in the world, in 21st-century Britain, rather than in Africa. All the women in my family had started their lives with less than I did. They got on with it. Why was I trying to kill myself? It also felt incompatible because thinness is more of a ‘white’ beauty standard, and does not carry the same cultural capital in the black community. But I had always been in predominantly white spaces, so it was only logical that I had absorbed their standards of female beauty. Still, getting thin didn’t make me feel as beautiful as I thought it would. The phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ comes to mind when I try to recall how I perceived myself. The illness felt like something that belonged to white women, which I was mistakenly wearing, like a kid playing dress-up, or someone slathering Ruby Woo on a pig. It felt painfully unsuited to me. Sometimes I really thought I was faking it entirely. I feared my doctors would one day tell me to drop the act and reveal me as a fraud. Worst of all, I felt like I was always, always failing.  


Everything Now throws us in media res, after all the events that led up to Mia’s hospitalisation. In flashbacks, Parker is careful not to include any shocking shots of Mia’s body whilst she is an inpatient, nor does she show us her weight on the scale. Rather, she focuses on other physical deteriorations: Mia’s knotted hair, dry skin, and weakened nails. This is quite an obvious diversion from the style of the 2017 Netflix original To The Bone, starring Lily Collins as an anorexic 20-year-old college dropout. The film was accused of glamorising the disorder by displaying an emaciated Collins, being weighed in her underwear, playing calorie-counting games with her sister, and laying nude in a final scene. Many others suffering from eating disorders at the time, including myself, watched it aspirationally, in reverence of Collin’s (partially animated) thinness. To The Bone’s uncensored view into restrictive eating was to the detriment of many of its younger teenage viewers. 

Parker’s show feels more concerned about its impact on the recovery of others. Parker also paints a well-nuanced picture of what ‘recovery’ from an eating disorder can be. The paradoxes of anorexic perception are presented in pained winces that arise whenever Mia’s mother compliments her ‘healthy’ figure or a friend calls her ‘recovered’. She receives external praise for putting on weight, going back to school and presenting as normal, but what her doctor calls her ‘anorexic voice’ is telling her that the compliments are an indication of her immense failure. Mia’s recovery is realistically non-linear. She makes vast improvements but also slips back into her old habits and thought processes on occasion. 

The seven-year average recovery time that Mia references is accurate. Physical recovery and weight restoration are often followed by years and years of gradual mental stabilisation with intermittent relapses, as it has been for me. It’s hard to tell when, if ever, one can call themselves fully recovered. I still don’t feel comfortable using the term in self-reference (which is probably a remnant of my anorexic inner voice), but I try to focus on continuously breaking and unlearning the rules that I made for myself and that society made for me. This year I had my first holiday where I did not restrict my food intake in fear of the photos that might be taken of me. Still, the idea of a permanent, 100% recovery from a condition like anorexia that consumes your mind and rewires even the smallest of mental processes, especially when complicated by the expectations of being an ethnic minority, still feels unrealistic. 

But Mia and I move forward with self-honesty, and instead of trying to return to the girls we were before were ill, we become new women.