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BBC Three

Why Overshadowed is anorexia on TV done right

After being disappointed and triggered by To The Bone, vlogging drama Overshadowed was a pleasant surprise

Anorexia is a tricky subject to tackle. As someone recovering from the illness, I know just how difficult it can be to explain it, even to those around you. I wish it was easier to tell our stories, but the reality is it can be extremely difficult to find the right balance and tone in which to express what it’s really like to starve yourself.

BBC Three’s new miniseries Overshadowed captures the tone of how to discuss eating disorders in a way that many television series and films have missed. Anorexia kills 20 per cent of its victims, and causes devastation for sufferers and those around them to extreme levels. Yet, we still struggle to get the representation right when it comes to pop culture.  

Netflix tried to make it work earlier in the year with To The Bone, a movie about anorexia that offered a textbook look at how not to do it. Emaciated Lily Collins starred in the film which became a dangerous mainstream version of the ‘thinspiration’ that is all too often plastered over dark corners of the web. Where To The Bone offered glamorisation, Overshadowed shows a reality without cutting corners, but without sensationalising it, too.

The eight-part series comprises of episodes of around ten minutes in which Imogene, a friendly and likeable Irish girl studying her A-Levels begins documenting her life via camera – a concept we are all familiar with in an age of YouTube. From her interactions with her friends, life at school and connections with her family, Imo seems like any other teenage girl – until we start to see something darker creep in.

The genius of Overshadowed lies in its personification of anorexia itself. One of the show’s writers, Eva O’Connor, plays the eating disorder in human form, beautifully demonstrating something that I have never been able to accurately explain even after years of therapy – me and my eating disorder are completely different entities. Anorexia, or ‘Anna’, pops its ugly head up alongside Imo’s friends, behind her in the mirror, right in her ear. It is a parasite that feeds on every negative thought and manipulates her into becoming its friend, only to destroy her from the inside. As the series plays on, we watch anorexia get in the way of relationships, reality and the simple things like celebrating your little sister’s birthday at a restaurant or having a sleepover with friends.

I knew that Overshadowed was different to other representations of anorexia from its initial trailer. Where the To The Bone trailer left me curled up in bed trying to get away from my thoughts, Overshadowed took me under its wing – it allowed me to be an active participant in consuming it as a series without causing me mental torment at the same time.

Of course, it is impossible to suggest that there can be a ‘good’ representation of an illness which for many reads like a death sentence – a point that was hammered home to me by many following my criticism of To The Bone months ago – but it is possible to create an appropriate representation. Rather than glamorising the illness, Overshadowed offers a simple message that I could instantly recognise and empathise with; this was an illness which gets under your skin, tears apart relationships and causes heartbreak and torment for not only the sufferer - but for all those around too.

Overshadowed also manages to cut many of the tropes that we often see in pop culture about eating disorders: there are no bones, no mention of weights or calories and no tips on how to starve yourself, either. This made it possible for me to watch, as someone who still has to be careful of triggers daily. Sure, it isn’t perfect – we’re still seeing a skinny middle class white girl who gets the help she needs by the end. But the reality is we need more representations like this. Writers Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan have created something that I hope will be helpful to both sufferers and in educating those who have never been through it.

When writing about To The Bone, I mentioned how it was a film I was scared of my sister, cousins, and all young people watching. But this is the film that I want people to see about eating disorders. Above all, it is an intelligent and responsible look at the disease. It will still be a difficult watch, and may still prove too much for some, but above all it is a difficult topic. It is a show that encourages getting help and promotes the idea that recovery is possible, all while proving that you can make great and responsible television about anorexia.