• Tue, Nov 8 2011

There’s Going To Be A Reality TV Show About Eating Disorders

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.

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  • Alice

    As someone who has struggled (silently) with anorexia and bulimia for years now, I am really concerned that this type of show is being made. Anorexics are extremely competitive people; it’s part of that quest for perfection that characterizes the disease. I wish I could say that I will boycott this show but I know I will not be able to NOT watch it. I am ashamed to admit I will watch it to compare myself to these women, pick up tips, and attempt to be thinner than they are. Yes this problem is mine, and not one inherent in the television program, but I’m sure I’m not alone in how I will respond to this program. Not to mention it could be triggering for self conscious teenagers, or recovering anorexics. There still seems to be something ‘glamourous’ about eating disorders, and they have become kind of a fixation for media and viewers alike. I mean, if you’re going to make a reality show about mental disorders, why would it be considered less acceptable to make one about schizophrenics, or depressed people, or those struggling with bipolar disorder? Because it would seem highly exploitive and getting over a mental issues isn’t something that can be done in the public eye, in my opinion.

    • Ninargh

      I agree completely, as someone who has lived with an eating disorder in various different manifestations over the past decade – anorexia mainly – I too wish I could say with confidence that I wasn’t going to watch this. But I totally am. Completely positive in the knowledge that it’ll feed into my disorder.

      Whatever Gold’s reasons are for producing the television show, I’m wondering if she truly has any understanding of how eating disorders work. Personally, I don’t think there is any way that the competitive nature and the ferocious need for perfection that underscore the disorder are going to mesh with the premise of the show and create the type of sensitively-approached hour of viewing she imagines.

  • Ninargh

    EDIT! Have just read that Gold suffered from an eating disorder of her own. So disregard my comment wondering if she has any personal experience, obviously she does. Which makes me question her decision to televise people struggling through treatment even more.

  • L

    Didn’t E! already try this show?

    It “lets you know what it’s like”…why? what good does that do? do you know who’s going to watch this? people who want to pick up “tips”.

  • MR

    I’m a guy, and am probably totally out of line here. I’ve seen first hand a woman who was struggling with anorexia. I tried to create a space where she could talk to me not just about that but about other things too, and I shared a lot a personal things about myself with her to tell her it was safe for her there. We once had coffee and I told her I thought she weighed only a 100 lbs, not because I knew her actual weight, but because I thought she was too skinny. She’s tall, and yeah, I was trying to be subtle. I later sent her an email telling her what a healthy skinny weight for her was. But based on what you all said I realize now that that was dumb, cause that was never her benchmark, and if she was more than a 100 lbs – she should have weighed 124 lbs at least – she probably thought she was too heavy. You know many times a long the way I asked her to share personal things with me, but she never would, so I only ended up communicating things about, and only helping, myself.

  • EKS

    ugh – this will definitely be used as thinspiration for the people still struggling, and those who haven’t yet begun but are on their way.

  • kate

    There is a twelve step fellowship for EDs. It is called overeaters anonymous, but I understand its supportive of all EDs.