Content Disclaimer: This post contains a discussion about eating disorders.
We know how Sheila Rubin sees herself before we know anything else about her. “Wrinkles and pimples, that’s a real sexy cocktail you’re serving,” she said to herself dryly in the first moments of Apple TV+’s new comedy-drama Physical, recounting a stream of negative self-talk as she studies herself in the mirror. Later, we learn that she’s a bored 80s housewife struggling with an eating disorder while trying to support her family and her husband’s state assembly. As she goes through her day — dodging moms’ invitations for a bite to eat, contemplating her workout plan — the internal monologue is pervasive.
“It was the first impulse with [Physical]. I wrote it saying, ‘Yeah I’m just gonna tell the truth about the way I talk to myself inside that I would never admit'” Physical Creator Annie Weisman tells Bustle that she based elements of the series on her own experience hiding an eating disorder. “The thing I’m most ashamed of… [how I talk to myself internally] — is the thing that connects me the most [to] everybody.
Although intrusive thoughts like those of Sheila are not often represented in pop culture they are quite common to those who experience eating disorders or eating disorders, Who affect 9% of the world’s population and 65% of American women. Physical doesn’t shy away from showing how Sheila’s disordered eating behavior colors her outer world, but it’s her inner monologue that acts like gas on the flame of every problem in her life. Brenna O’Malley, Registered Dietitian and Founder of the No Diet Online Community The Wellful, says such representation is key to showing that eating disorders affect people well beyond mealtimes, and can actually “cross over and spill over and really interfere with you showing up and being present. in other areas”.
Weisman was careful to focus on the more subtle ways in which Sheila’s disordered eating behavior reverberates throughout her life, rather than showing direct images of her bulimia and purging. When Sheila moves between mirrored rooms that could trigger her body image issues, for example, the camera is erratic and abrupt. “You can understand that she’s going through something — this obsessive, private, personal struggle,” Weisman says. “[The focus is] on the emotional truth and not on the more sinister aspects of his behavior, that was important to me.
Conversely, Physical uses tight shots and quick movements to capture how engaged and powerful Sheila feels when she takes her first aerobics class. Like Sheila, Weisman found the exercise helped her silence her self-talk, allowing her to “harness that [feeling] and turn it into that fierce voice in the world.
Unlike Weisman, however, Sheila is far from out of the woods. While exercise can aid recovery from eating disorders and eating disorders — by helping people reconnect with their bodies and boosting feel-good neurotransmitters — it can also interfere with disordered eating habits in a harmful way.
“It can also be used as a punishment, so you’re punishing yourself for what you ate, and you think you don’t deserve it unless you’ve burned enough calories or walked 3 miles,” says Jacqueline Stone, Registered Dietitian based in Miami, Florida. In Physical, exercise “[quiets Sheila’s] voice a bit, but probably for the wrong reason,” adds Stone. “There’s this pervasiveness, this intrusion, but instead of obsessing over food and calories, [she] becomes obsessed with movement.
This nuanced approach is what makes Physical distinct from other representations of eating disorders in pop culture. As a slim, cisgender young white woman, Sheila still embodies an overrepresented archetype in the media, but her behavior isn’t limited to food, body image, or even her mood. Time and time again, the show makes it clear that his disordered eating is not just a complicating factor in his life, but a dangerous means of control and coping mechanism. Weisman hopes it will bring a better understanding of aspects of eating disorders that have yet to enter mainstream conversations, and help people realize how nebulous and pervasive these disorders can be.
“We always put this pressure on ourselves not to admit how we really feel,” Weisman says. “In my own experience, and in many other women I talk to, eating disorders really thrive in isolation, they thrive in secrecy. So once you’re somehow connected to other people, it shines the light in those corners and begins to dissipate its power.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741 or chat online with a helpline volunteer. here.