Love it or hate it, ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars is an inescapable staple of current pop culture.
The soupy and sartorial mystery/horror show debuted in 2010 and is nearing the end of its fifth season, with its success due to the the mix of guilty pleasure TV and a savvy intelligence of the culture in which it exists.
It famously makes use of social media activity during the show, and, on a heavier note, is markedly progressive in its treatment of the LGBT community (it was nominated for GLAAD Awards in 2011 and 2012). Despite the show’s progressive intentions, it remains one of the media’s worst offenders with regard to narrow beauty standards that are attained through unhealthy means.
The most obvious example of PLL’s unhealthy depictions of eating comes through the character of “Hefty Hanna,” the moniker given to main character Hanna Marin when she suffered from binge eating disorder. Instead of treating Hanna’s problem like an actual disease, the show ridicules her for being weak and socially inept.
Furthermore, Hanna is never actually healed: She gains confidence by losing weight when she starts purging, dressing stylishly, and becoming popular through brute queen-bee force.
It was never possible for a heavier Hanna to merit the name “Pretty Little Liar” because, in this world, she has to be thin to be considered beautiful.
It is also telling that Hanna’s eating disorder manifested itself through binging and purging, not anorexia – her refusal of food (for example, the episode where she picks the croutons out of her salad) correlates with her beauty. Hanna is repeatedly depicted eating when no one else is, and even shamed for it by her friends who ask if she is “really going to eat that.”
In other characters, there’s also a parallel between weight and social ostracizing. While not explicitly written into the show, the character “Paige” is noticeably thinner (with longer hair, to fit in with the rest of the girls) by season five, in which she and Emily have had a full-fledged relationship, than when she first appeared on the show, when she was a vindictive, twisted social outcast.
In recent episodes, “Big Rhonda” – explicitly shamed for her weight – is a mentally ill person. In the show, heaviness does not just disqualify beauty, but also mental sanity and moral soundness.
Pretty Little Liars‘ food issues have been intriguingly documented by blogger Graham Kolbeins in his video Food Horror, which splices together scenes from the first three seasons of the show that depict shaming treatment of food.
The general consensus is this: With such a vast audience, especially of young women, the show needs to pay attention to its portrayal of food, beauty, and social acceptance.
It is not only guilty of perpetuating a narrow definition of beauty, but also of direct food- and body-shaming. PLL needs to consider its position as an influential and progressive show and begin to include more types of women in its definition of “pretty”.
Caitlin Lansing is a 2014 graduate of Princeton University, where an adamant belief that “freak shows turned into beauty pageants” propelled her to write a 90-page history thesis about it. A former dancer and college cheerleader, she is no stranger to body scrutiny, and seeks to challenge the idea that one’s worth is intimately tied to appearance.