Tell me the truth: Did you watch Lizzie McGuire when you were growing up? Did you know the theme song? Did you laugh at her animated alter ego? Did you think that Gordo and Lizzie were meant to be?
Now, tell me this: Can you remember any single Lizzie McGuire episode or moment? It seems silly to think that a Disney Channel show about an average, adolescent girl could have been powerful enough to leave you with a memory that you carry 12 years after the show was canceled in 2004. However, I do. When I think back, there's really only one episode that sticks out. It's season two's episode called "Inner Beauty." And it was the first time I remember seeing a preteen girl struggle with disordered eating. If you can't recall the episode or have never seen it, here's the premise: Gordo is filming a music video. Yes, it's ridiculous, but stay with me. Naturally, the stars of this video will be his BFFs Lizzie and Miranda. The episode opens with the girls practicing their dance movies before digging into a snack tray filled with peanut butter, cookies, and more goodies. And that's when Gordo says, "Wow, you sure do eat a lot." That one comment was enough to trigger something that had most likely been weighing on Miranda for too long. The next day, when Miranda sees a photo of herself, she exclaims, "How come no one ever told me I have like, six chins?" Of course, Lizzie tells her, "Because you only have one." But it's too late. Miranda is now disgusted with her appearance, adding that unlike real music video dancers she's "not tiny or gorgeous."
Throughout the episode, Miranda decides to try a diet — a diet that involves not eating anything for as long as she can stand it. The results are frightening. She nearly passes out at Lizzie's house when the girls rehearse their dance routine. Miranda lies and tells Mrs. McGuire that it was probably her "really big lunch" when the truth is she hadn't eaten anything all day.
When Lizzie tries to confront her, Miranda is defensive and angry. So Lizzie turns to her mother, who gives her advice. Lizzie and Gordo confront Miranda once more, and just like that — presto change-o — Miranda is "cured." She admits that she only dieted because she's stressed out from school and pressure from her parents, but "eating is the only one thing I have any control over. Eating is something I have a say in."
Lizzie and Gordo confront Miranda once more, and just like that—presto change-o—Miranda is "cured."
The episode ends with the girls performing their dance routine, and we get to see the final music video. Miranda tells Lizzie, "You look good, but I look great!" after watching the video — a total 180 from five minutes before. And that's the end. Feel good music cuts in. A freeze-frame on Miranda's smiling face. Then: fade to black. We never hear about Miranda's disordered eating on Lizzie McGuire ever again. But I still remember it nearly 14 years after it aired. The reason this episode has stuck with me is because it's my Saved By The Bell-caffeine pills-"I'm so excited" moment. It was that rare moment when a TV show I watched regularly veered into a harsh reality and tried to tackle a difficult issue.
And while I'm so happy this show was even willing to talk about this — and so happy that little preteen Lizzie rightly confronted her friend again and again despite discomfort — I can't help but think that Lizzie McGuire, the episode, let me down here. Miranda's dangerous diet could potentially be a risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. And according to stats from The National Eating Disorders Association, half a million teens struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating.
Body image issues don't disappear overnight — there's no easy fix. And as someone who has had friends who've come to terms with their own body image issues and eating disorders — I know this all too well. Lizzie McGuire had a real opportunity to do something powerful: It could have told the truth. It could have allowed a character, like Miranda, to grow and develop into more than the funny sidekick who's struggling over what cute outfit to wear. It could have delved deeper into something that so many girls are experiencing. And she could have been like the real-life young women that I knew then and know now.
Look, I understand this is a large undertaking. I know that Lizzie McGuire was just a kids show on the Disney Channel. But Degrassi was just a kids' show too — and I can't remember a character development that carried so much weight simply evaporating into thin air by the next episode — or never reappearing later in the series. Maybe it's not Lizzie McGuire's fault. Maybe the Disney Channel, which has sterilized other TV shows in the past, wasn't ready for it back in 2002. Maybe it's a greater problem with the "after school special" formula where shows try to tackle a major issue in just 22 minutes so that kids learn something new. Or maybe it's just that I was expecting more from my favorite show. By the time I was 14 years old, I already had people in my life struggling with body image, body dysmorphia, and anorexia. And I wasn't really sure how to be there for them or how to handle it. Now, I know about so many resources, like the National Eating Disorders Association, and thanks to our own website, I've been able to see great advice on how to help friends. But back then, I felt helpless. After that episode, Miranda became my favorite character on the show, despite the series never coming back to this storyline. Maybe it was because suddenly I knew that Miranda wasn't perfect like Lizzie. She was flawed — just like me and my friends. And that was more comforting than any feel good freeze frame ending could ever provide.
If you suspect you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, please go to the National Eating Disorders Association for resources, online support, and guides to local professionals. You can also call the free, confidential NEDA Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.