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Television Shows about Eating Disorders

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Eating disorders are a serious, possibly life-threatening condition that claims the lives of thousands of people each year. The mental illness associated with disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating, and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED) does not discriminate among age, sex, race or socioeconomic background. It is estimated that upwards of 30 million people have suffered from an eating disorder at some time over the course of their lifetime.

With the surge in media such as video streaming, movies, and television shows, there has also been an increase in programming highlighting these disorders and bringing awareness to these very serious mental conditions. In the following article, we will discuss some of these movies and shows, the perspective taken on the issue and how effectively the message is relayed.

The subject of eating disorders is a very uncomfortable subject to discuss for both the sufferers and family and friends. Although as you will see, it has been exposed on many television shows and movies, producers and directors have to walk a very fine line between being informative and the risk of demonstrating to vulnerable viewers how to in fact get skinny, purge and obsess about eating.

Anorexia contagion is a very real, very serious situation in which someone who is struggling mentally with body image, self-esteem and desperately trying to fit in learns how to lose weight and deceptively persuade others away from their illness through shows or others who are experiencing it. 

In each of the shows and movies that we will discuss here, the intent is to educate, bring awareness to and inform without judgment or shaming of any kind. Across this piece, we’ll look at how eating disorders have been presented through the media and how these shows shaped audiences’ views. 

In 2011, Tracey Gold, a former child actress on the popular sitcom Growing Pains who successfully battled eating disorders herself, launched a new reality tv show focusing on women in the throes of their anorexia and bulimia journeys. Starving Secrets follows these women as they confront the reality of their disorders and helps them to find the treatment that they need. The goal of each episode is not to exploit the challenges of those who suffer but to bring awareness to the devastating effects of the disorders as well as to share the available treatment plans so that others can overcome as well.

Between December 2011 and January 2012, there were 6 episodes of Starving Secrets released. Although each show was informative and did provide details about identifying eating disorders and symptoms, each episode contains very disturbing images of true sufferers of the disorders. The show is not recommended for young children but rather should be used as a resource and conversation starter between parents and teens or others who may be suspected of suffering from eating disorders. 

The show describes how symptoms manifest differently in each person and how the disorders can be triggered by life-altering events, stresses, and bullying. It also opens up the topic for discussion about how the media can contribute to a person’s sense of body image, stereotypical views of a “healthy” body and the influence that celebrities, movies, magazines, and social media have on people. 

Although eating disorders have been documented throughout history, it wasn’t until a book was published in 1973, Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, And the Person Within, which highlighted the issue as not only relative to the upper class as was previously thought. With this public awareness and acknowledgment of the validity of the disorders, more and more cases were diagnosed and made public. As the epidemic grew in size, movies and shows began to emerge bringing more awareness to the issue.

In 1987, a short biographical film was produced about the life, struggles, and death of famous pop-star, Karen Carpenter. The movie, available on YouTube, is a depiction of Karen’s real-life struggles which had been influenced by the constant pressure in the industry to be thin and the stresses and mental challenges which triggered her disorder. The movie was done using Barbie Dolls to portray Karen Carpenter, yet is a very real look into the struggles that those who suffer from an eating disorder experience on a daily basis.

For the Love of Nancy, released in 1994 is based on the true story of a high school graduate, Nancy Walsh, and her struggles and recovery from anorexia nervosa. Tracey Gold in the role as Nancy, was in fact, faced with her own personal struggles with the disease while making the film and therefore, was able to use her own life experience in her portrayal. 

For someone with an eating disorder, this film may be a wake-up call to the disservice and harm that is being done to your body as it is denied food and some of the repercussions of doing so. It shows the very real stress and trauma placed on the family of someone suffering from the disorder and how the support of family, friends and loved ones is critical to recovery and a return to a “normal life”. Although it is not a very informative movie per Nancy Walsh herself, its purpose is to bring light and awareness to a disorder that many people brush under the rug or are too embarrassed to talk about.

Based on Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir, Girl, Interrupted is a very intense depiction of the inside of a mental institution from the viewpoint of young adult patients, each suffering their own variety of mental illness. From personality disorder to burn victim to bulimia and anorexia, the girls all experience life in the residential treatment center differently. The storyline shares the challenges that each girl faces in her own struggle and how their interrelationships affect one another and their journeys. 

Although this film revolves around several different mental health issues and is not simply a show about eating disorders, it provides someone suffering from an eating disorder an inside view of a treatment center and the realities of the challenges ahead. It is well known that a treatment plan is not an easy road, yet an essential one nonetheless. This film may be very difficult to “digest” for some because of the graphic nature and the context of the movie. 

More recently, Thin, a 2006 documentary following four Florida women, provides a clear picture into the behavior of sufferers. The film provides a detailed view of treatment facilities and the treatment of eating disorders themselves. Unfortunately, although it clearly defines the HOW of treatment, it does not give the viewer a clear picture of the WHY. The treatment of the women in the facility and the techniques used are debatable and could be triggering for someone who is currently suffering from an eating disorder. It does provide excellent insight into the severity of eating disorders and how deeply rooted they can be in a person’s life. 

Lastly, a 2017 film about the daily struggles and behaviors of an anorexic young woman, To the Bone, accurately describes the life of someone with an eating disorder. As the film progresses, the tone moves from glamorizing eating disorders to feeling empathy and compassion for the main character as the viewer sees the disorder through her eyes. Unfortunately, this film could be triggering for someone with an eating disorder.

While many people still think that an eating disorder is a choice, hopefully, this film provides them with some insight into the daily, real struggles that those suffering encounter and the behaviors which are out of their control. It also provides sufferers a glimpse into recovery, hopefully providing them with the motivation to keep pushing forward to living a more “normal” life.

Let’s move on to television shows and series.

In the British tv show, Overshadowed, which aired in 2017, eating disorders and anorexia specifically are personified. It shares with the viewing audience that an eating disorder is NOT who the person is but rather is as much an external force as any other environmental factor. The producers intentionally did not speak about weight, calories or exercising until you drop to demonstrate that those who suffer are not tempted, or compelled to repeat their debilitating behaviors. Instead, the show encourages compassion, empathy, and encouragement to those who may be suffering that it is possible to recover and that you can get help. By depicting the disorder in such a way, it is clear that sufferers are NOT defined by their illness. 

In a Disney Channel episode of Lizzie McGuire which ended in 2004, Lizzie’s friend Miranda was triggered into a bout with anorexia by a simple comment about her eating habits. A seemingly innocent statement would not encourage most people to obsess about their weight and the desire to be thin. But, to someone in whom this thought may have lain dormant, it could be devastating. 

Miranda’s disordered eating, or lack of eating rather, lasted only the duration of one episode and was not a very good representation of the struggles that a young girl with these thoughts could face. First of all, it is highly unlikely that Miranda was going to easily “recover” from her anorexic tendencies simply because her friends confronted her about it. She seems to have been completely restored and in fact, even better than before after their discussion.

As well-intentioned as Lizzie and Gordo were, it is unrealistic to think that they could convince her that she is beautiful and to stop starving herself. This could provide someone who is unfamiliar with the disorder the false impression that sufferers can easily turn their habits and behaviors on and off.

Unfortunately, in the real world rather than tv staged life of teenagers, recovery is a long, difficult process that is not turned on and off like a light switch. It does require intense therapy and may include relapses and other health issues. The producers of Lizzie McGuire were very of their mark with this one.

In the famous television series 90210, Kelly was thrown into a whirlwind when she believed that people judge her solely by her appearance. After collapsing from an overdose of dieting pills, she had to come face to face with the reality of her disorder. Unfortunately, this wildly popular show in the ’90s, which had a massive following, had the opportunity to address the issue of eating disorders, its effects, and treatment. Sadly, the episode did not go any further than Kelly suddenly passing out. 

Of course, there have been a plethora of movies and shows about anorexia, bulimia and society’s pressure to be thin. But, what about those people who overeat, eating thousands of calories per day because of a mental health issue! There have been many shows focusing on these eating disorders as well, although less frequently are they actually labeled eating disorders. For example, the 2010 series, Huge, portrays the challenges of eight overweight teens at a summer weight loss camp. 

Back | Eating Disorders | The MEadowglade

As you can see, there have been countless attempts to bring awareness to this very serious issue of body image and eating disorders. The truth about eating disorders and the sufferers are that eating disorders are not about the food. The food behaviors, eating, binging and purging, and starving, are all symptoms of a much bigger issue. In their attempt to bring awareness to the severity, effects, and treatment of eating disorders, many of these movies and shows fails to bring light to the real mental health challenges that sufferers are faced with. 

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and you’re contemplating getting help, let The Meadowglade help. We have experience working with eating disorder patients and can get you on the road to recovery! Contact us today!

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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