Physical Takes an Unflinching and Unlikable Look at Eating Disorders

Photo: Apple TV+

A woman sitting alone in her car grabs a pot of honey from the backseat. She sticks almost her whole fist into the jar like a self-flagellating Winnie the Pooh, scooping fistful after fistful of gooey, glistening honey into her mouth. It’s obscene, almost erotic, but she’s not satisfied. It’s never enough: She goes to a bank, retrieves $50, puts in a mammoth fast-food order, and checks into a hotel to meticulously lay out the food, stripping naked before eating all of it. It’s a scene of gruesome overindulgence and loathing, one meant to leave us feeling at once uncomfortable and unsatisfied.

That scene, from the first episode of new Annie Weisman (Desperate Housewives, Dead Like Me) drama Physical, starring Rose Byrne as the obsessive Sheila, captures the battle between restraint and loss of control that encapsulates many eating disorders. Set in San Diego in the 1980s, the show follows Sheila as she grapples for power — with her husband, her child, her estranged parents, and her body. After conning a speed-loving aerobics instructor, Sheila finds strength through discipline, becoming an instructor herself to replenish the family finances that her bingeing depleted. Sheila, played uncomfortably well by Byrne, is caustic and self-involved. Variety, in an early review, called the character “gratuitously cruel,” ultimately finding that her personality does the show a disservice.

Variety is right, if kind: Sheila is a bitch. She is loyal only to her own obsessions and desires. Her inner monologue is vicious, and she walks around sneering at everyone she encounters in her mind while being saccharine sweet to their faces. Her myopic control of her own body makes her cruel about other people’s. She steals; she lies. The transactional nature of her disorder extends to her relationships with other people, and she will only speak to them as long as she can get something out of the conversation: child care, votes for her husband’s political campaign, sign-ups for her aerobics classes.

Sheila may be a mean, imperfect heroine, but that only makes her more relatable for many who’ve experienced the warped fixations of eating disorders. Lazy representations of eating disorders on TV and film, like Netflix’s To the Bone, often show pure anorexia or bulimia, with pale, bone-thin sufferers checking themselves in the mirror and joylessly pushing food around on their plate. By centering on gratuitous shots of meals, ritualistic plate-setting, and slow shots of people eating, Physical captures a different reality.

Sheila thinks about food all day. She promises herself a tiny bit of cobbler in exchange for “good” behavior, avoids places where she might be expected to eat, and judges others who “give in” and feed themselves. “Nobody thinks this much about food,” she tells herself, and she’s right. That dedication makes her mean and short-tempered, which is a painful truth known to many who have dealt with disordered eating.

Eating disorders affect at least 9 percent of the population in the U.S., although the number of undiagnosed people struggling with disordered eating is likely far higher. All types of eating disorders are far more common in women than men, and they are rarely as straightforward as we see on-screen. Binge-eating disorder, which Sheila exhibits symptoms of but the show does not name, is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined, but it’s rarely shown. Many people go undiagnosed and untreated, in part because they don’t recognize their symptoms as disordered. Diet culture, particularly from the ’80s to the 2000s, left many of us with warped ideas of normal eating. Set in perfection-obsessed Southern California in the ’80s, Physical captures the onset of home-exercise tapes and low-carb diets.

Unlike other, grittier depictions, Physical handles Sheila’s disordered mind with levity, showing just how absurd her thinking can be. The altar-like spread of burgers in the hotel room; Sheila carrying an entire cake to the bathroom to devour; those dripping fistfuls of honey. The obscenity of Sheila’s gorging shows that for many, disordered eating is not as linear as just starving all the time. For her, food is many things: an enemy, a payment, a ritual. She sees it as a method of subterfuge, and other people’s kind offers of nutrition are their way of sabotaging her. She’s compulsive and consistent, and controlling food makes her feel as if she has control over other things, like the way her husband treats her.

If it feels as though Sheila’s experience hits close to home, that’s because the show was written from a place of truth. In an interview with the New York Times, Weisman confessed that she was exploring her own experience with an eating disorder through Sheila, in part because she had not “seen it expressed” the way she had felt it, as a “secretive, dangerous, difficult” illness. She likens eating disorders to addiction, saying that she only began to heal when she wrote about it.

Eating disorders are often represented as a quest for vanity. However, like many sufferers, Sheila isn’t just vain. In later episodes, we learn that she is actually reaching for control over a body that feels alien to her as a consequence of trauma. This arc is reflected in reality — many eating disorders are triggered by trauma. In some studies, one in four people with eating disorders had symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Eating disorders are often found in women with histories of rape and sexual assault, and many of these disorders began as coping mechanisms.

Physical’s one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to Sheila’s disordered eating is infuriating, but the narrative reflects the chaotic timeline of recovery. Undoing years of obsession and trauma isn’t easy, and as with many addictions, people will “recover” multiple times before they are truly better. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, relapses and backslides tend to be the rule, not the exception. Sheila’s own recovery arc comes when she discovers aerobics, exercising not just to lose weight but to build a business. Sheila is an early lifestyle guru, and Physical asks what the cost of personal betterment is. The answer is often other people. Sheila may start to gain control of her disorder, but she never stops lying or stealing, building an empire on the backs of other people.

Sheila’s relentless inner monologue is expertly done, a choice that again came from Weisman’s own experience: “A lot of the really natural feelings we have, we are told they’re unappealing in women, like, anger, rage, ambition, appetite, desire. These are things that girls are taught, from a very young age, are taboo. They get contained inside us,” she said to the Times. She added that Sheila’s journey is one of trying “to try to learn to harness that really, really painful self-talk, discovering that it’s actually a power that you can unleash on the world if you just stop inflicting it on yourself.”

However, when Sheila directs that self-hatred toward other women, it feels sour. Physical upends some stereotypes about disordered eating, but it reinforces others, perpetuating through Sheila’s inner monologue a tired, dangerous myth that all people with EDs are skinny women who hate fat people. In reality, less than 6 percent of those with eating disorders are ever medically diagnosed as underweight. Regardless of Sheila’s redemption, sitting through yet another show that reiterates cruel rhetoric will be painful for many. Sheila’s only real friend, Greta, is a fat woman who is never anything but kind to her. Regardless, she’s the victim of some of Sheila’s worst acts of selfishness and cruellest barbs. Greta, played by Deirdre Friel, is the most exciting secondary character and is given a surprising, warm narrative arc. The point is, of course, to highlight how terrible Sheila is, but it’s difficult to feel as if the cruelty is necessary. Or, indeed, that Sheila deserves Greta’s friendship at all.

No group of people will ever feel wholly represented by one show or book, but Physical dispels myths about eating disorders and creates something grimly funny from a difficult topic. It’s not for everyone, but for those who’ve experienced the barbed tongue of an inner monologue like Sheila’s, there’s some dark relatability to her acerbic self-hatred, compulsive ritualism, and alternation between discipline and a barbaric loss of control. Sheila isn’t a nice person, no — but then, would it be much fun if she was?

Physical Takes an Unflinching Look at Eating Disorders