In what appears to be a somewhat misguided programming decision, Lifetime is getting ready to air a reality show about anorexia.
The show, called “Starving Secrets,” will feature ten women struggling with the disease, and will be hosted by recovered anorexic and former actress Tracey Gold. According to the Daily Beast, the goal of “Starving Secrets” is to give viewers an idea of what it’s like to battle the disorder:
Gold assures that the show is handled tastefully, and the women featured are not exploited. “It’s not an easy show to watch, but it’s riveting and it really lets you know what it’s like,” she says, in her first interview about the project.
Some contestants are treated for as long as eight months, and for at least one cast member, says the Daily Beast, “the cameras rolled through every tearful breakdown.”
Sounds effective to me (and also not exploitative at all)!
Anyway, I’d like to think that Gold’s heart is in the right place, and that she’s primarily interested in helping people who have suffered like she has. But while airing a TV show about anorexia might help folks who don’t have the disease to
voyeuristically watch cast members starve themselves to near death understand it better, for people in the viewing audience who do struggle with an eating disorder — and possibly for the women featured on the show — it runs the risk of doing more harm than good.
Anorexia has certain characteristics that, I imagine, defy logic for those who haven’t dealt with the disease personally, and I say that as someone who has (as I’ve repeatedly mentioned) struggled with anorexia myself. I don’t pretend to speak for everyone who’s had or who still has the disorder, but: anorexics tend to get competitive with each other. Seeing someone on TV who weighs 95 pounds may just as easily serve as inspiration to be thinner than that person, as it would serve as an inspiration to gain weight and get healthy.
People with anorexia also take tips from each other, hence all the pro-ana websites offering advice like “Thou shall not eat fattening food without punishing afterwards.”
But maybe most importantly, for many people with anorexia, getting better seems like a loss, not a win. The disease begins to feel like a strength, a sign of willpower and superiority over other women (a sign, I should note, that is repeatedly reinforced by media messages suggesting that women who eat a lot are “bad” and women who don’t eat a lot are “good,” but that’s another post for another day). Seeing people actively engaged in the disorder splashed across the TV is, unfortunately, likely to be an encouragement to keep going with it.
In short, in trying to shine a spotlight on a very complicated disorder, “Starving Secrets” seems, at least at first glance, to forget about what it really means to have that disease.
To give Gold the benefit of the doubt, it does makes sense that she would want to do the show. Having a disease that the medical community doesn’t yet understand is incredibly frustrating. Experts still really don’t know why people develop eating disorders, there is no twelve-step eating disorder program, and so those who are looking to get better are essentially left to their own devices to find a treatment plan that’s right for them.
So hopefully, the women in the cast will benefit from the show, as will the women and men watching it. But in the end, there’s no telling whether it will help or hurt, and it’s possible that we won’t find out until it’s too late.