Are You Going to Eat That? Pretty Little Liars Has Food Issues

Over at Future Shipwreck, Graham Kolbeins has created a video — using footage from the first three seasons of ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars — titled "Food Horror."


In the first season of the show, Ashley Benson's character, Hannah, has flashbacks to an eating-disordered past, and an anonymous bully ("A") tries to force her to return to bulimia. But in addition to that overtly food-oriented storyline, in this compilation, you realize that almost every character has some kind of incidental weird eating scene.

Kolbeins explains:

In Food Horror, I set out to examine the many moments in Pretty Little Liars’ first three seasons that stigmatize food, whether it’s presented with a feeling of unease, danger, or overt rejection. Aside from the 16 minutes of “food horror” I’ve compiled above, there are a countless dining scenes where food is conspicuously absent—often supplanted by the girls’ favorite diuretic, coffee. Sometimes they simply sit in front of a plate of prop salad and ignore it.


On the one hand, it's kind of funny to see scenes sliced up and arranged into nonsense, leaving only a stream of shots in which dramatic music plays as the characters are being really weird about food. But it stops being funny when you consider the PLL audience: Overwhelmingly female, with a core demo aged 12-17. In fact, 58% of the people who watch the show are under 34. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.

As Kolbeins writes:

It’s important to consider cultural messaging about health, body image and beauty embedded within entertainment targeting young girls. In 2012, Internet outrage lead social networks like Tumblr and Pinterest to adopt policies censoring individuals with eating disorders from sharing “thinspiration” tips. Silencing these organic online communities is an easy way to feel like we’re addressing eating disorders, but it does nothing to fix the systemic problems that allow body shame to permeate for-profit entertainment products aimed at women.

[Future Shipwreck]

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Okay. I am going to play devil's advocate here, and not just because I secretly love Pretty Little Liars.

I see the "food horror" scenes above, and I agree that there seems to be a pretty conspicuous absence of actual consumption (minus Hanna's bulimia, which is kind of a nascent plot point eventually).

However, rarely, if ever, on a television show are you going to see the characters touch the prop food. This is done mostly for continuity. It is a pain in the butt to mark exactly where coffee cups, french fries, and lettuce bits are, and every time the actor touches one, you run the risk of a minor-but-annoying continuity error. If you want to edit those out, it takes money. Also, retouching actors' hair and makeup is costly.

So, yes, I agree that PLL treats food strangely, what with the "danger" often associated with meals (e.g., the worms in the takeout boxes). Although I have to say, the food treatment is not abnormal for television shows, whether they feature a teenage-girl cast or not. Think of every sitcom you've ever seen, every episode of Law & Order where the characters sit around boxes of Chinese takeout but don't eat them. Unless the food item is expressly important to the scene (Hanna's cupcakes for instance), it's not likely that you're going to see the food item being consumed.

Also. Full disclosure. I wrote my dissertation about the treatment of food and eating disorders on popular television. I was going to turn it into a book. Then I remembered that I'm not a good writer. And then I remembered that no one wants to read 10 chapters about the treatment of mental illness on Degrassi ... or do they.