“You’re doing it. Go girl!” This is first thing Anna says to Imogene, a sprightly flame-haired teenager, out on a run. Anna is the personified vision of Imogene’s anorexia. No one else sees her, even her host doesn’t communicate directly with her, but she’s there in nearly every scene, in every aspect of Imogene’s life. Within two episodes, Anna is chastising Imogene, telling her, “you have no willpower.”
Overshadowed is a new BBC Three series about a seemingly happy teenage girl plagued by anorexia. Imogene has a bolshy, supportive group of friends, a love interest in the form of the school bad boy, a doting sister, a typically concerned but caring mother. And she has Anna, played by writer of the original play and the BBC Three adaptation, Eva O’Connor. “I wanted to distinguish between the sufferer and the condition,” O’Connor tells me over the phone. “People with eating disorders can seem difficult and alienate themselves, they drive their families up the wall – people tend to resent them for that. I wanted to give an insight into the mind of someone going through it.”
In the play – which is based on O’Connor’s own experience with anorexia – Anna was more of a feeling than a person, with O’Connor slinking around the stage in a skin-coloured body suit. On television though, she is a fully formed human, wearing dark hoodies and looming in the background. “I wanted to portray that Anna is not just constantly telling Imogene, ‘You’re a fat mess.’ She’s comforting her, she’s saying ‘We’ve got each other’, ‘I’m all you need’. It’s almost like an addict in an addictive relationship with drugs.” As the series progresses, Imogene and Anna become closer and closer, and eventually they begin to say the same things at the same time – Anna has completely taken over her at this point.
The teenage girl with anorexia is a story we’ve seen played out on TV and film time and time again, most recently (and controversially) in Netflix’s To The Bone, which has been accused of glamourising the illness, and giving tips to sufferers on how to lose more weight. “Their heart was probably in the right place,” says O’Connor, “But I think it did glamourise eating disorders. I do think it was triggering for certain people.” In Overshadowed, O’Connor and her co-writer and director Hildegard Ryan made a conscious decision to stay away from some of the more tokenistic features of anorexia. “We avoided things like talking about calorie-counting, numbers on scales or giving people tricks of the trade because it’s not about that,” she says, “It’s about emotional turmoil, relationships breaking down and it’s about all the non-glamorous sides of anorexia. A lot of portrayals of eating disorders fall into the trap of people being a bag of bones. We never wanted Michelle Fox (who plays Imogene) to lose any weight at all, so we only used make-up.”
What about playing Anna? Surely that could have been triggering for O’Connor? “I really didn’t want to play Imogene because I didn’t want to have to go into any horrible, dark territory. But playing Anna was great craic, in the play and in the TV version. She’s so creepy and weird, I really enjoyed playing her.”
We need really need to look at the way we’re raising our children. We need to ask how can we all have better relationships to food
So why do so many portrayals of eating disorders come under fire? O’Connor think it’s because our definition of the disease is far too limited. “People associate anorexia with willpower, catwalk models and all these kind of positive things.”
Each ten-minute-long episode of Overshadowed is presented as a vlog, filmed on Imogene’s new camera. Like many teenagers before her, a vlog is somewhere she can express herself, share her life, and most importantly, her innermost emotions. As some of us know all too well, social media can be a deluge of abuse, particularly for teenage girls. Particularly for teenage girls suffering with an eating disorder. But this isn’t a problem that Imogene is confronted with, as O’Connor explains, “Vlogging is how loads and loads of teenagers communicate, and Imogene is one of them – Imogene only has Anna and her vlog to turn to. As a teenager I wrote a lot, and I guess my vlog was my diary. I don’t believe that much in criticising social media, or the media all the time, but I think it’s about being smart about it.” What about Instagram? A place where only an easily ignored safety warning stands between a user and pro-eating disorder hashtags. “Social media can obviously have a very negative influence,” says O’Connor, “but it isn’t going anywhere. I think we need to teach people how to use it, and from a healthy point of view we need to learn how to spread positivity on the internet; we need to learn how girls can have a really strong self worth, rather than wanting to starve themselves to look great on Instagram.” For all that is going wrong in Imogene’s life it’s almost refreshing to see a young girl find a community online, rather than suffer under the comments of trolls.
When we think of anorexia, we most often think of food and excessive exercise, but Overshadowed also confronts the lesser known symptoms of the disease, like the isolation. This is something O’Connor knows all too well, “You’re so in your own head. People don’t realise that you’re thinking about your condition every second of the day. You think about it, you dream about it, you wake up, you think about it more. It dominates your whole life and you’re so on your own in that.” In Imogene’s case, she begins to alienate herself from her close group of friends, ignoring their attempts at an intervention. It’s her isolated state that culminates in a terrible accident, one that eventually leads her to admit she needs help. It’s at this point Imogene begins to blame her mum and her obsession with healthy eating. Does she have a point? “You can’t lay the blame solely at mum’s feet,” O'Connor posits, “but I think we need really need to look at the way we’re raising our children. There’s always going to be mother-daughter tensions, and if you don’t pick up habits from your mum, you’d probably get them from someone else. Instead, we need to be all saying, Are we a food obsessed society? How can we all have better relationships to food?”
Overshadowed has been well received by the press, but most importantly – at least to O’Connor – by its viewers. “It’s incredible how many people have got in touch,” she says, and it’s not just those with eating disorders. “Lots of other people have said I don’t have an eating disorder but I do have depression and I can identify so much with the isolation and the loneliness, thank you so much for giving a window into that.” It’s not a spoiler for O’Connor to reveal a happy ending for Imogene too, “She definitely gets better. One hundred per cent. It will take her a while, it won’t be easy, she can do it. She’s a powerful woman, she’ll be grand.”