This review contains discussion of eating disorders and treatment. Read at your own discretion.

ICYMI: Season two of Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age Netflix Original comedy series Never Have I Ever recently dropped, and it’s safe to say the internet is already obsessed. The show follows 16-year-old Devi Vishwakumar, an unapologetic Indian teen trying to break free of South Asian stereotypes and live out the typical American high school experience.

Courtesy of Netflix.

Throughout the first two seasons, Devi navigates the impact of her father’s death on her life at home with her (now single) grieving mom, implied academic pressures as an Indian teen applying to Princeton, identity exploration within her friend group, and — of course — boy problems. In addition to diving deeper into these issues and Devi’s coming-of-age, season two introduces a “frenemy” for Devi, whose struggles with anorexia nervosa are highlighted throughout the season. By spotlighting the behind the scenes of life with an eating disorder rather than glamorizing it, Never Have I Ever gracefully introduces not only a new character, but a somewhat taboo, triggering topic.

Throughout season one, Devi sees herself as the outcast struggling to fit in, which she largely attributes to her race. Her struggles to fit in are only amplified by the arrival of transfer student Aneesa Qureshi, who is quickly dubbed “Devi 2.0” due to their shared South Asian heritage, ability to get along with teachers, and academic success. Aneesa, however, instantly bonds with the popular kids, and even Devi finally acknowledges that, regardless of race, she “might just be uncool.”

Despite protests, Aneesa soon infiltrates all aspects of Devi’s life: Devi serves as her tour guide around Sherman Oaks High; Mr. K, Devi’s favorite teacher, foregoes a conversation with her to ask Aneesa to join the soccer team; her best friends gush over Aneesa and how cool she is; even Devi’s mother hopes that Devi can finally have an Indian friend, and is wowed by Aneesa’s manners and the Ferrero Rocher tower — which, “for Indian people, is the Rolex of gift confection boxes” — that she brings to dinner.

To those in Devi’s life, Aneesa seems “perfect” from the outside: she’s academically successful, athletic, and well-mannered. What many people, including the characters in Never Have I Ever, don’t know, though, is that perfectionism is an extremely common trait amongst people who suffer from eating disorders. For example, orthorexia is a lesser-known form of disordered eating that focuses on only eating whole, unprocessed, and “clean” (in other words, perfect) foods. In regard to anorexia nervosa, perfection takes form in unrealistic (and oftentimes deadly) low body weight. As with everything else, perfection is simply unachievable.

Even Devi is wooed by Aneesa’s perceived perfection, and -- much to her dismay -- finds herself bonding with Aneesa and even considers her a friend. As much as she likes Aneesa, though, Devi is frustrated and hurt when she sees her new friend flirting with her former boyfriend, Ben. While Devi is panicking and trying to stop the pair from hooking up at the school’s charity relay, a classmate mistakenly refers to Devi as Aneesa, causing Devi to retaliate. Flustered from her mile run and frustrated by the assumption, Devi dubs the mistaken girl a racist, and sparks an impulsive, insensitive rumor that Aneesa is so skinny because she’s anorexic. Devi’s assumption perpetuates the idea that someone with anorexia must be skinny, which is an outdated misconception. In reality, anorexia nervosa is a mental illness that can result in weight loss.

The morning after the rumor is started, Devi finds Aneesa in tears because people are talking about her and saying she has an eating disorder. Devi tries to cover her tracks, brushing it off as “a rumor” started by someone who “was probably jealous of her.” Aneesa, though, confirms to Devi that it isn’t a rumor. Not only does Aneesa have anorexia, her eating disorder is the reason she had to leave her last school and transfer for Sherman Oaks High. The connotations of Aneesa’s illness being a rumor, though, as well as “the judgement people put on Aneesa based on her eating disorder could be triggering and silencing to those teens who are currently struggling and watching the show. Though potentially triggering, at the same time it’s a good display of the truth of present day eating disorder misconceptions,” said Gabriella Giachin of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) to Spoon University.

Aneesa’s admission to Devi shows just how an eating disorder can turn someone’s life upside-down. There’s nothing fun about being out of breath after walking down the hall, or not being able to choose between answers on a test because your brain is shrinking. There’s nothing glamorous about dropping out of school for hospitalization due to malnourishment. Moreover, Aneesa’s tears show just how frustrating it can be to have an eating disorder due to stereotypes, especially the stereotypes that Devi’s impulsive statements capitalized on.

In an interview with Spoon University, Chelsea Kronengold — program manager of the National Eating Disorder Association — suggests that media can play a crucial role in eating disorder depiction, so long as all aspects of the illness, not just the specific behaviors, are covered.

“Eating disorders can effectively — and responsibly — be illustrated by focusing on the mental and physical consequences of the illness; including but not limited to disrupted friendships and isolation, fear and depression, and medical complications,” Kronengold said. 

Later on, Aneesa confides in Devi and her two friends, stating that the only thing she was complimented for at her old school was “being skinny” — not her soccer skills, academic prowess, or overall “coolness” that her new classmates at Sherman Oaks are so drawn to.

In turn, “something crazy inside [Aneesa’s] brain said that she couldn’t be skinny enough,” and Aneesa confesses that she “just couldn’t stop.” Aneesa reveals that she was eventually so sick from her eating disorder that she had to be hospitalized. When Aneesa returned to the school after her hospitalization, word of her diagnosis got out, and the relentless judgment bullying that followed caused Aneesa to transfer.

The double standard that Aneesa experiences parallels many stereotypes of eating disorders and modern-day diet culture. People, primarily women and young girls, are often praised for being skinny. Weight has become synonymous with health, even though people of any size can be healthy.

“Misconceptions about who eating disorders affect have real consequences, leading to fewer diagnoses, treatment options, and pathways to help for those who don’t fit the stereotype,” Kronengold said to Spoon University. 

Additionally, weight and racism are tied hand-in-hand with medical racism, leading to the misdiagnosis of people who are seeking medical assistance. In light of societal stereotypes, Dr. Elizabeth Easton, the national director of psychotherapy at the Eating Recovery Center, said in an interview that the authentic casting of “normal-weighted actors of color” reinforces what we know: “that eating disorders do not discriminate; they affect people of all ages, genders, body sizes, ethnicities and socioeconomic status.”

Yet, disordered eating — an unhealthy, dangerous, and deadly habit — is praised when it isn’t obvious.

For example, someone suffering from disordered eating may exercise as a form of “compensation” for eating. To someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of their life, exercise regimen, and dietary intake, their choice to exercise may be applauded because they are “taking care of themselves” and exercising. They may cheer you on for running an extra mile, yet don’t realize that, to your disordered rules, the extra mile equated to one more thing you were “allowed” to eat. Moreover, the time spent running that mile is more time away from the stressor that returns to your headspace the second you leave the gym. Exercise is a perfectly healthy habit, until it becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism for external pressures.

Similarly, while Aneesa was crumbling under the external pressures from her family, academic success, and struggles to impress her friends, she was complimented for the side effects of her negative coping skill. The reinforcement of mentally unhealthy habits with physically acceptable (even desirable in western culture) consequences can often lead to a sort of delusion amongst those who suffer from eating disorders, suggesting that their disorder “isn’t that bad” or even “normal.”

Unfortunately, this general acceptance of disordered behaviors may further play into a sufferer’s “I’m not sick enough” mentality (another phenomenon amongst those diagnosed with eating disorders that capitalizes on physical rather than mental symptoms) and prevent them from getting treatment until it’s, quite literally, “do or die”. Though we do not know exactly what happened to Aneesa, viewers can infer that “cute”, praise-able, never-thin-enough skinny eventually crossed over into sickly, scary, Aneesa-could-die skinny.

While viewers don’t get her full story, Aneesa eventually sought help for her disorder, neglecting the positive comments from her peers in favor of her overall health. Ironically, though, Aneesa’s hospitalization and recovery leads to terrible bullying from her peers, exposing the double standard that often leads to the vicious cycle of eating disorders. Ultimately, many people who suffer from eating disorders are not trying to “be skinny”; instead, they are seeking praise and validation from others (“you look great!”), or avoiding critiques.

Eating disorders are ultimately a method of coping with negative emotions by gaining control, and it just so happened that Aneesa found control in food and body size.

Later on, Devi, Aneesa, and their two friends Eleanor and Fabiola are eating pizza when Eleanor makes a comment about Diet Coke and cheese pizza before asking Aneesa if they are “talking about food too much.” Aneesa reassures Eleanor that they aren’t, further showing that eating disorders really aren’t about the food at their core. The depiction of eating disorders in the media, though they may be well-intended, may perpetuate some of the stereotypes of the illness -- including the notion that it’s just about food and body image. “The most harmful portrayals focus on the behaviors, even glamorizing them, instead of the thoughts, emotions and traumas that drive the disorder,” says Dr. Easton.

Aneesa takes the opportunity to share that she’s in a treatment program and “is doing much better,” before telling the girls that she’s so glad to have met them at her new school and have their support. “The focus of the discussion helped to battle the stigma that it was a 'choice' to continue the behavior,” Dr. Easton said.“[The writers] also did a nice job talking about seeking specialized support, and even mentioning the need for hospitalization for people for whom one-time weekly therapy is not enough.”

Throughout season two, Never Have I Ever gracefully challenges the many modern day stereotypes of anorexia and other eating disorders, spotlighting a more authentic account of the mental illness through Aneesa and her budding friendship with Devi. Kronengold reminds us that “The media is one of the most important allies in the efforts to raise awareness about the dangers of eating disorders, and accurate depictions of the complexities of eating disorders and movies can help eradicate the shame and stigma for those affected while also educating the general public about the severity of these illnesses.” By depicting stereotypes and severities of eating disorders through Devi’s perspective, Aneesa can share her own experiences with anorexia while rewriting the societal narrative.

Aneesa is a reminder that, despite the daily challenges and struggles of mental illness, recovery is possible.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please contact a care provider or the National Eating Disorder Helpline at 800-931-2237 or through their website.

For more information on how media and individuals can responsibly spread awareness about eating disorders, NEDA has guidelines for media or sharing your story publicly.