I learned wonderful and awful things from an episode of a Disney channel tween show, Lizzie McGuire. For years, I thought that straight-up losing consciousness was the symbol that you were hurting your body too much, eating too little. One episode—about struggling with and overcoming issues with body image—both helped and hurt.
“Inner Beauty” is the name of an episode in the second season of "Lizzie McGuire," early 2000s Disney Channel sensation (the entire series, btw, is free online). I first watched the episode in re-runs circa 2005, and I have thought about it many times since.
In “Inner Beauty,” Lizzie’s BFF Miranda decides to go on a crash diet when she begins to feel her life is spinning out of control. The middle schoolers (Lizzie, Miranda, and token guy friend Gordo) had been hanging out in the hallway, where Miranda was freaking the fuck out that she got a B on a test, raving about the high expectations of her parents. When Gordo hands over a still of her dancing from the music video he’s directing, she loses it.
The photo in question
“How come no one’s ever told me I have like six chins?!” she squeals. “And my arms—they’re so big!” Lizzie and Gordo have no idea what to do, saying she looks fine and great. That’s when Miranda calls out the media for their representation of women: “Have you seen the dancers in those videos? They’re tiny and gorgeous! I’m not tiny NOR gorgeous!”
Lizzie’s cartoon incarnation explains that it’s just airbrushing, nbd, but to no avail. Miranda bolts, pissed at Gordo for talking about how much Lizzie and Miranda ate yesterday, and he feels awful. Even when Miranda skips lunch, Lizzie urges Gordo not to overthink it, but he feels awful.
But we ALL know something’s up—cue after-school special music—when Miranda almost FAINTS at their dance rehearsal that afternoon, and lies to Lizzie’s mom about it by saying she ate a lot at lunch. Lizzie begins to freak out—what the hell is going on with her super-cute best friend?
So, Gordo urges Lizzie to talk to Miranda; he can’t, “because [you] have that ‘girl thing.’” He notes the pressure he feels from magazines to look more muscular, and Lizzie agrees to confront Miranda at the mall the next day. It goes super-poorly; when Lizzie suggests some cool new pants, Miranda mutters they’d be cute—“If only I had a new body to wear them on.” (Cue me, tearing up, at the sage age of 20.) They have a confrontation, and Miranda storms off, muttering a quiet “I’m outie!”
Miranda is wonderful the way she is, but I do have qualms about her shirt...
Cartoon-Lizzie just can’t wrap her head around the whole thing. She expresses what everyone who has ever helped a friend struggling with body image has thought: “I’m just wondering what Miranda sees when she looks in the mirror, because it can’t be what I see when I look at her.”
How many times have you thought that about a person you loved who did not even kind of like themselves? How many times have you wondered what you were seeing of yourself?
* * *
I delegitimized the damage I, and at times my friends, were/are inflicting on our bodies. PSA: You don’t need to faint publicly to know that you’re fucking with your mind, body, relationships, and spirit.
Fainting is a pretty visceral cry for help, but I’ve determined that, simply, not everyone is a fainter. You might actually have to tell someone what’s up using words instead. I know it’s harder to do, but trust me.
It’s true that I was in Miranda’s position briefly, but in the life of an average teenage girl, it’s likely you’ve been on both sides of the struggle. I’ve been with Cartoon-Lizzie far too many times, most poignantly when one of my college friends was struggling with an eating disorder—and, for a while, I didn’t even have a Gordo to back me up. To me, having gone through something similar, the signs were blatant: She was claiming she’d eaten when I knew she hadn’t, her amount of self-deprecating comments had skyrocketed, her extroversion and enthusiasm were subdued, and most importantly, her bright eyes were dulled completely. It was all because she wasn’t eating.
I gently, slowly confronted her about the issue. Her symptoms were exacerbating quickly. Luckily, she had a great relationship with her parents, who helped to get her the help she needed to recover. Sounds good, right?
But this leaves out a huge part of the story, the weeks and months I spent completely willingly fielding her texts and calls and conversations about blacking out when volunteering, falling asleep when doing homework, and various relationships inadvertently falling apart. I was in over my head. Although I frequently mentally referenced Miranda when looking for guidance, simply, about how to get sick, I had forgotten what Lizzie had revealed about how to help get your friend better.
* * *
“I know when I need a professional—and I’m not afraid to admit it,” Cartoon-Lizzie declares after her mall talk with Miranda. She tells her mom about what’s going on, and her mom immediately realizes it’s why Miranda had basically passed out in their house the day before. She says that if it keeps happening, she’ll tell Miranda’s mom, and—god bless being 12 on a Disney Channel show—that makes Lizzie feel all better.
We don't want an overwhelmed Lizzie!
It all works out when Lizzie and Gordo tell Miranda how scared they are when she shows up to dance in the music video. Lizzie has literally the best How To Talk To Someone With A Mental Illness convo: “It’s your body, it’s your life, and it’s your business,” she says while still expressing how much she loves her best friend.
This is when Miranda gets to the point that usually takes a little bit of therapy or at least reading a feminist psych book: “It’s like, all of a sudden, everything’s out of control!” Miranda tells her friends. “I guess… eating is the only thing I have any control over… All this other stuff just happens to me.” (…said almost every teenage girl starving herself, well, ever.) The person writing this episode deserves a shout out too- genuine discussions of serious topics in mainstream children’s media are few and far between, and they handled it pretty damn well.
Anyway, the kids group hug, film a music video, and by the end, Miranda thinks she looks smokin’ hot in it. Hooray!
Or, maybe not hooray. Healing one’s relationship with one’s body doesn’t happen in a moment—we don’t know when Miranda’s perfectionism would kick in again. But, assuming that her support network maintained as she got older (and returned from Mexico City) maybe it would all work out again.
At least, that’s all I can hope for her.
"If we get one step closer each and every day, we'll figure it out on the way"
Images via Lizzie McGuire/Disney Channel
Video via LizzieMcGuireSource on YouTube