Content warning: this piece discusses body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and social pressures. It also contains spoilers from Season 2 of Never Have I Ever.
Let’s talk about the show that was supposed to revolutionize South Asian American media representation: Never Have I Ever. If you haven’t heard of this show, its premise is that a high school girl, Devi, recently loses her dad and is learning how to navigate her grief among other typical high school concerns. The second season just released, and it’s honestly more of a doozy than the first.
Generally, I dislike the show. Not for the reason that I find it unrelatable (although I do), but because of the choices it made when representing different issues. Personally, I think the show could have been more impactful if it depicted what we aspire for the South Asian American experience to be, as opposed to normalizing its problematic aspects that we face right now (one of my lovely Tiktok mutuals explained the issue well).
The show provides a positive example of mental health discussions, which I do want to commend. Mental health has been stigmatized throughout many parts of the South Asian community, so it was refreshing to see a show openly discuss mental health issues and therapy for South Asian American kids. However, they also used Devi’s mental health struggles to justify her problematic actions toward everyone else in her life. This seems to be where the positive representation ends.
In the new season, the writers decided to include representation of another common mental health issue for young people in America: eating disorders. Body dysmorphia and eating disorders are some of the most prevalent mental health issues facing the US today, where at least 9% of the population will experience disordered eating in their lifetimes. Of that, BIPOC are “significantly less likely than white people”1 to receive medical diagnosis or care for an eating disorder.
Asian Americans in particular are far more likely to be undiagnosed for eating disorders than white Americans, which is usually caused by a couple factors. First, our communities tend not to seek mental health support due to cultural views on mental health. Second, and often more dangerously, our communities often pressure fat people into achieving the thinnest body they possibly can.
Especially from our older community members, it is exceedingly common to experience weight shaming for young South Asian women, no matter what weight we’re at.
Weight loss is encouraged for young girls who are larger than a size 6 and we receive the most compliments when we have visually lost weight. On the flip side, our community prods thin girls to gain weight because they look “unhealthy.”
With this being a prevalent experience for South Asian women, I would have expected the writers of Never Have I Ever to delve into this conversation when they introduced the conversation of eating disorders. Aneesa, the new Indian kid at Sherman Oaks, starts to befriend Devi, only to have Devi spread a rumor about Aneesa being anorexic (which is unfortunately true).
When Aneesa discusses the background of her eating disorder (ED), she identifies the cause of her disordered eating as her white classmates at her previous school who only complimented her on her thinness.
I take three main issues with the way Aneesa’s ED was represented by this show:
1. They shy away from naming the South Asian community as a factor in her ED.
Framing her disorder in relation to her proximity to her thin white classmates felt like a strange choice. Almost every South Asian I know who has experienced body dysmorphia has been, in large part, influenced by the messaging from our own community. Centering her white classmates as the cause of Aneesa’s disordered eating seemed like a lazy mechanism to avoid calling out our community’s culpability in these narratives.
When representing almost every other issue in this show, they depict the realities of South Asian American life as they’ve existed for the last 20 years, but this was the only issue they changed that rule for. They could have used this opportunity to name the stigmatization that our community perpetuates and jumpstart conversations within our community of this widespread issue. Making any part of Aneesa’s ED story related to the South Asian community would have honestly been preferable to the storyline they provided.
2. The ways Devi resolved the situation caused more harm than good at most times.
Beyond the backstory of her ED, Aneesa’s story felt really sloppily addressed. There were several points where Devi acted extremely harmfully that honestly shouldn’t have been modeled. The big apology scene with the band felt like a mockery of the situation and would have never happened in real life. Instead of modeling how to correct one’s behavior after exposing someone’s ED, that scene accomplished nothing besides making light of an unfunny situation.
Later on, when Nalini speaks to Aneesa’s mom, Noor, she uses Devi’s depression to justify how she treated Aneesa. It felt strange that they would use one mental health crisis to justify causing another. I think the show had a clear opportunity to depict how to properly support a friend who experiences body dysmorphia, but they did everything except that.
3. The creative choices made when representing this story did not seem intentional.
There were no content warnings specific to disordered eating before any of the episodes, which could have been easily added into the beginning pop-up that Netflix provides.
Never Have I Ever also missed a major opportunity to change the way we visualize people with eating disorders with their casting choice. The media already centers around thin white women when they depict stories of eating disorders. However, people in larger bodies experience disordered eating, body dysmorphia, and weight shaming at significantly higher rates than thin people.
The show could have cast a fat actor to depict Aneesa’s story and brought attention to the very common experiences of most fat South Asians. Instead, the show continues to perpetuate the poor representation of fat bodies in the media and plays into the representation of fat people as auxiliary characters without unique storylines (namely, Sasha).
While some folks have been excited that the topic of body dysmorphia was approached at all in the show, we need to ask for more. Not all representation is good representation, and this show misses the mark by trying to appease South Asian audiences too much. I think the show should have critiqued issues that the South Asian community imposes upon itself and push towards creating the community we hope to have. I hope that this show is just a starting point for South Asian American representation and that we can develop more movies, shows, and media that encompass the true diversity of our experiences.