Body Image

Joe Locke says Charlie’s eating disorder will be a big focus of Heartstopper Season 3

Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images

CW: Eating disorders

Heartstopper fans can barely contain our excitement as we approach the release of the show’s hotly-anticipated third season. That said, we might need to prepare ourselves for a darker turn of events than usual. Speaking to Jesse Tyler Ferguson on the latter’s podcast “Dinner’s On Me,” Locke was candid about the fact that Charlie’s eating disorder, which we saw some evidence of in last season’s Paris trip, will be given much more screen time in Season 3.

“It’s probably  the main focus of the season,” Locke told Ferguson. “And our writer, Alice, is…I’ve never met anyone who can write such quite serious topics with such heart and such love. It’s almost like she writes it whilst the audience is always aware there’s a light at the end of the tunnel the whole time. I don’t know how she does it because it almost allows the audience to not stress themselves out too much while also learning about a certain topic. And the only way I could do it whilst not stressing too much about it was not letting myself put that burden on like just like all I can do is the best I can do. And there’s gonna be people who think that oh, you didn’t do that, right. Oh, you didn’t do enough research, but  I can put my truth into it and that’s what I do.”

Locke is right to try and take some stress off of himself: depicting eating disorders is extremely tricky territory. Sensationalize it, and you run the risk of glamorizing it, downplay it and you’ll be called out for minimizing the issue. Knowing how good Oseman is at tackling hard issues in the queer community, it feels like we’re in good hands. But some viewers have already expressed concern around the depiction of Charlie’s anorexia in Season 2.

“I felt that his whole ‘aw I just forget to eat haha!’ attitude was really… inaccurate and a bit glamorised?” wrote one Redditor in a post from last year. “In the school trip to France scene his sitting there at the table with a glass of water before fainting felt REALLY forced and quite stereotypical.”

Other viewers, however, felt that this depiction was true to life.

“It quite accuratly [sic] reflected my experiences in a lot of ways. “The whole pretending you ‘just forgot to eat, lol’ was painful to remember, because why did I think anyone would believe me??” They wrote. “Oh yeah, not hungry, I ate earlier… The lies just flow so freely. I actually felt pretty uncomfortable with how much it hit home. I guess the biggest difference is how easily Charlie admits he needs help, admits to having a problem. But then if it was dragged out to realistic time frames it wouldn’t serve the story well, so I guess there has to be a little artistic licence [sic] there.”

A show like Heartstopper has never been afraid to tackle real queer issues in a complex way, and the mere inclusion of this storyline shows that Alice Oseman is interested in disrupting pre-existing tropes around eating disorders. While it’s become almost disturbingly commonplace to show a young woman experiencing anorexia or bulimia in a stereotypical way on shows like Gossip Girl (the OG one) and 2017’s Insatiable, queer men—who make up a whopping 42% of all men experiencing eating disorders—are not often shown to be dealing with the same pressures around body image and unattainable beauty standards as women and girls are.

But the reality is that queer teens are vulnerable to eating disorders no matter their gender identification. That’s why it’s so important not only to show eating disorders onscreen, but to get those depictions right. A 2020 study found that 54% of LGBTQ+ adolescents “have been diagnosed with a full-syndrome eating disorder during their lifetime, with an additional 21% suspecting that they had an eating disorder at some point during their life.”

With the added stress of trying to live up to the impossible anti-aging effects on built-in phone filters and the impact it’s already having on Gen Z, body dysmorphia is going to be in the conversation more and more as new generations start to age. Hopefully, media will continue to keep up with the reality of queer teens and their body image struggles in a way that remains helpful rather than exploitative. And if there’s one show we can trust to do that, it’s Heartstopper.

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