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Pretty Little Liars’ lies about “pretty”

Date: August 17, 2014 | Posted By: Caitlin

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.

Even after Hanna’s transformation into a “pretty” little liar, the show continued to use her eating as a way to shame the character.

Even after Hanna’s transformation into a “pretty” little liar, the show continued to use her eating as a way to shame the character.

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.

The character of “Hefty Hanna” at the height of her eating disorder.

The character of “Hefty Hanna” at the height of her eating disorder.

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.




What Do You Think?

10 Responses to Pretty Little Liars’ lies about “pretty”

  1. Carina on 08-22-2014

    I'm so sick of the way that the media often portrays eating as something to be ashamed about! We need to do it AT LEAST 3 times a day in order to even SURVIVE! How has this basic survival instinct evolved into such a cultural taboo over time?! It's so sad! I'm definitely ready for more sitcoms that treat eating as a natural (and fun!) thing.
  2. Carolyn on 08-26-2014

    Wow. This is so true. The girls who are absolutely obsessed with this show at my school also happen to be the ones with the most unstable body images. One of the girls (with whom I was close for a long time) asked me literally everyday for a year if I thought she was fat. Every. Day. This show is truly and largely impacting girls view of themselves, and I have a few words for anyone who says differently.
  3. Plan Cul on 09-25-2014

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  6. 7 Ways the Media's Depiction of Eating Disorders Completely Fails Women of Color — Everyday Feminism on 04-25-2015

    […] Lifetime movies like Hunger Point and A Secret Between Friends to teen dramas like Pretty Little Liars and Skins, eating disorders have a look – and it’s almost always […]
  7. 7 Ways the Media’s Depiction of Eating Disorders Completely Fails Women of Color — Everyday Feminism on 04-25-2015

    […] problem. From Lifetime movies like Hunger Point and A Secret Between Friends to teen dramas like Pretty Little Liars and Skins, eating disorders have a look, and it’s almost always […]
  8. 7 Ways the Media’s Depiction of Eating Disorders Failed Me As a Woman of Color | Adios Barbie on 07-01-2015

    […] From Lifetime movies like Hunger Point and A Secret Between Friends to teen dramas like Pretty Little Liars and Skins, eating disorders have a look, and it’s almost always […]
  9. Kaylee on 07-10-2015

    Pretty Little Liars actually helped me to started eating healthier and exercise. It is never said that Hanna having an eating disorder is a good way to lose weight and in fact, encourages people to eat healthily. Peopleare so nitpicky
  10. Someone on 07-27-2015

    While I don't really watch the series, let me tell you about the books. In the books, the same thing happened: Hanna was chubby and "ugly" and felt bad about it, so she binged, wishing to be popular. Her biggest fear when she looked in the mirror was seeing her "old self".
    She thought that by being beautiful she was gaining confidence. She constantly made fun of ugly people, and later when she was sent to a sorta-rehab place, she only chose to hang out with this girl because she was the only "popular" girl in there. A girl which later turned out to be a b*tch. Not only this: Hanna was actually friendless, and the only "best friend" she ever had after Ali was Mona...AKA A, who was only using her all this time. Not popular at all. According to the way her voice was portrayed when she realized beauty was not everything, she became wiser. There's also many mentions of this in other parts of the books, like when the way Ali played the "Not it" game ( a game in which you screamed not it to an "ugly" person) it was considered "cruel".

    This is what Hanna's story was trying to show: that beauty does not represent who one is inside. I think they're just trying to portray the stuggle of many teenage girls today, but fails a little in carrying out the point. Then again, the show is very different from the books from what I've heard, but you should consider looking at it from that angle. Sorry if my review is long.