What does Winnie the Pooh have in common with Lorelai and Rory Gilmore? They all love food.
In fact, they don’t just love food—food is their ticket to winning the hearts of their audiences. From Popeye, to Garfield, to Kevin Malone from The Office, food is a means for fictional characters to express themselves and become more lifelike. But what happens when this is taken too far?
With vision distorted by anorexia, I remember reading the book, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter. The main characters in the novel are geniuses training to become spies—not exactly your average girls.
Despite being average myself, I remember being able to relate to a character named Macey. Not because I was a genius. Or a spy-in-training. Or the proud owner of a “diamond nose stud at least a carat and a half.”
No, the reason I related to Macey was because we ate the same number of calories each day.
In the book, the main character says, “I started to mention the crème brulee, but then Macey exclaimed, ‘I eat eight hundred calories a day.’ Bex and I looked at each other, amazed. We probably burned that many calories during one section of P&E (Protection and Enforcement) class. Macey studied us skeptically, then added, ‘Food is so yesterday.’”
Not only is Macey’s anorexia normalized, it’s glorified. The girls react to her restrictive eating with amazement, when they should be horrified. They go on to extol Macey’s thinness by referencing her “supermodel legs” and her “shot at being on the cover of Vogue.”
Fictional food behavior was hardly the main factor in my illness, but it certainly affected my own eating, which led me to wonder…how much do the food choices of fictional characters affect the general population? Can a person predisposed to certain eating behaviors be “pushed over the edge” by being exposed to them in the media?
Ohio State University researchers state that when people are exposed to fiction, they vicariously experience the thoughts and emotions of characters through “experience-taking.” For instance, one study showed that participants who identified with a character who overcame obstacles to vote were more likely to vote themselves.
Another study measured participants’ empathy toward gay people; empathy was higher after reading a story and finding out the character was gay at the end.
These facts are important to take into consideration when viewing or creating fictional characters. When creating your own fictional characters, ask yourself how to portray characters’ eating habits in a healthy manner: Even if the character has unhealthy behaviors, find a way to present them in a safe and thoughtful way.
What it all comes down to is this: You are not a fictional character. What you eat is reality. Don’t let the media’s representation of eating change your eating.
Elizabeth Frankel is a Minnesotan who loves psychology, theatre, and anything related to horses. She seeks to understand why the world is the way it is through critical thinking, and when that fails, she just employs sarcasm.