Harriet* was 14 in 2007. She loved fashion, but she had been struggling with bad self-esteem and body dysmorphia since she had started secondary school. That year, she started watching a new TV show on E4: everyone at her school was watching it, popular and unpopular kids alike. The show was Skins, which turns ten today. One character in particular made an impression on Harriet: the eccentric, dazed, beautiful Cassie Ainsworth.
In Skins, Cassie’s reputation precedes her. We know she’s been in hospital, we hear she’s “not allowed to handle knives” but that she’s “great in the sack” – as long as “she’s not hungry”. Her character is built around her eating disorder. When we do meet her at a house party at the end of the first episode, she’s dressed in a black tailcoat, gold dress, and smudged make up, with a flower artfully pinned to her hair and weird accessories hanging from her jacket. Her speech is peppered with exclamations of “wow!” and “lovely!”.
“I wear a white dress and now I can eat yoghurt, Cup-a-Soup – and hazelnuts now,” she says, before spending the party raiding the cupboards and fridge, reorganising food.
“She was the character I wanted to be most like,” Harriet, now 24, tells me. “She was smart, odd and funny. I remember her gorgeous golden dress and how good I thought it looked on her frame; I would think about it in the canteen at lunch as I sat with friends while they ate and I didn’t. It gave me a sense of inner triumph. Not only could you be thin, but the act of not eating could also make you a more interesting person.”
Cassie was the definition of quirky. Played by the beautiful Hannah Murray, she wore eccentric hats and bold prints, layered mountains of mismatched clothes on top of each other, and even sported a watch on her ankle. She refused to engage in the usual social niceties, brutally reminding her friends of who was really in love with whom, or who was secretly fucking. She danced alone on park benches. She avoided eye contact but gave hugs out happily and freely. Her pretty face wore a permanently dazed expression.
Young audiences were drawn to Cassie’s character. While adult TV reviewers at the time dismissed her as being “as irritating as real teenagers”, her face began popping up on blogging platforms and teen bedroom walls. Almost as soon as the first episode aired, fashion forums began dissecting Cassie’s style, images of the character flooded Livejournal and Blogspot.
Slowly, these began to intersect with communities interested in eating disorders: images of Cassie were used for “thinspo”, fans editing her picture next to pro-anorexic slogans riffing on the character’s dialogue, like “Keep Calm and Stop Eating Until They Take You To Hospital”.
A crackdown on pro-anorexia blogs and images from sites like Pinterest and Tumblr that began in 2012 means a lot of these sites have now been deleted, but you can still feel their lingering influence today in the proliferation of gifs of Cassie’s quotes, like “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely” or “I hate my thighs”.
It’s also apparent from the disclaimers many Cassie fans later added to their blogs: “My blog DOES NOT promote eating disorders and nor will it ever do so,” writes one user, though many of their posts have been removed from the site for violating community guidelines.
Other blogs condemn using Cassie as the poster child for eating disorders: “Anorexia isn’t Cassie fucking Ainsworth,” writes the author of Anorexia is Not a Diet. Another Tumblr user deconstructs several popular Cassie gifs, writing:
“Many people who either suffer from mental health issues or think they suffer from mental health issues will post these gifs because they feel they ‘relate’ to either the character or the gif, but realistically, these gifs do, to some extent, glorify eating disorders and other mental illnesses.”
Of course, many teenage girls did relate to Cassie’s character. It’s easy to look back now and see Skins’ portrayal of anorexia as caricatured and problematic, but back in 2007, it was quietly revolutionary. It was a time when eating disorders didn’t often occupy primetime television. There are hundreds of blog posts written by teenage girls reeling as they recognised themselves on screen, and felt less alone. One such blogger, Kate, explored her experience under the title “Life as a Cassie”, writing, “I appreciate and understand her struggle.”
“I thought it was at least good they had tried to have a character with an eating disorder to shed some light on it,” Liv, 25, tells me. “I could definitely relate to the tools she used to eat less, like the scene where she showed how she’d cut up her food and play with it but never eat it.”
It’s a scene that also stuck with Amelia, 24:
“I wasn’t actually ‘allowed’ to watch Skins as a teen, so I don’t think Cassie had a chance to affect me as much as she might have. If I had seen some of Cassie’s behaviour at the time, instead of later – such as her pushing food around her plate to make it look like she’d eaten – it definitely would have had a negative effect.
“What I did watch, however, was Hollyoaks, which had a character called Hannah who was suffering from anorexia around the same time I was. I’ve never been able to identify one single cause for my eating disorder, and I always go back to the simplest, scientific idea that ‘my brain was fucked’. However, it is undeniable that Hannah’s portrayal affected me. I think the show’s creators were incredibly responsible, and didn’t try to glamourise the disorder in any way, but catchphrases like ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ and tricks like ‘Drink water before getting weighed’ definitely stuck with me, like a type of tutorial or guide.”
Eating disorder charities like Beat now advise that the media avoid specifics like weight, days gone without eating, or tactics for avoiding food in the depiction of eating disorders, as they can be particularly triggering and encourage others to adopt the same techniques.
“There’s no doubt that media images play an important role in how we conceive of the world and our place in it,” science writer Carrie Arnold tells me. “As for whether the media causes eating disorders, that’s less clear. From my personal experience, fictional portrayals of anorexia and other eating disorders are rarely accurate, as it would be hard to convey my 15-plus years of struggle in a TV series or two-hour film. Could images of thin models potentially trigger an urge to diet in a young person? Absolutely. Would it progress to a clinical eating disorder in someone who wasn’t vulnerable due to other factors? Highly unlikely.”
She notes: “How media images really affected my own eating disorder was [by] making it much more difficult for others to recognise there was a problem and for me to recover.”
One of the most common comments from women who identified with Cassie’s character was that they experienced a very “different”, or less severe, kind of anorexia. “I think the most damaging way TV portrayals of eating disorders affected me was by convincing me that I myself didn’t have a problem,” Amelia tells me. “I would look at these characters and feel ashamed, as if I wasn’t a ‘proper’ anorexic, because I wasn’t passing out, or, in Cassie’s case, ‘not eating for three days so I could be lovely.’”
Liv adds: “I do think her [Cassie’s] character romanticised eating disorders and mental health problems, but I suppose the whole of Skins was a romanticisation of youth.”
In the ten years since Skins first aired, our understanding of how eating disorders work has improved culturally – and, for many then-teenage Skins fans, personally, too. Last summer, Kate updated her “Life as a Cassie” post:
“I openly admit that I glorified my eating disorder. It took nearly two years for me to acknowledge that being a diagnosed anorexic made me feel special. I felt powerful. It made me unique. But most of all, it was something that I was good at. Life as a ‘Cassie’ isn’t pretty. It’s hell.
“I’m no longer in denial and every day I’m clawing my way out of this hole. I’m no longer a ‘Cassie’, I’m a Kate, and I’m trying.”
*Some names have been changed.