New Eating Disorder Reality Show Is Misguided, Disingenuous, And On E!

Illustration for article titled New Eating Disorder Reality Show Is Misguided, Disingenuous, And On E!

Earlier today, we received a press release about E!s new eating disorder show, the charmingly-titled What's Eating You? The show's producers claim that the six-part series is going to shed light on eating disorders. But I have my doubts.


What's Eating You isn't the first eating disorder reality show, mind you; back in May, the Oprah Winfrey Network announced that they'd be shooting a series within a major ED treatment center, and at the time I expressed my concerns over the fact that all illness-as-entertainment shows, whether they're about hoarders or addicts or anorexics, are based on a mix of exploitation and feel-good editing. We are presented with a freak show-esque view of serious mental illnesses, a quick intervention of sorts, and then, typically, a happy ending. It's a very neat way of presenting a very, very messy subject, a feel-good view of some pretty terrible moments in people's lives.

Here's something you might not know about eating disorders: when you have one, it becomes incredibly obvious to you how ill-informed the rest of the world is when it comes to your illness. There are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about anorexia and bulimia that it's hard to find people who really get what you're going through. Even finding a doctor or a therapist who really "gets it" is difficult. So when you're a recovering anorexic and you get an press release like this:

From bizarre rituals to extreme habits, the worlds of the twelve brave participants will be an open book. From a woman who must put countless packets of artificial sweetener on anything she eats – including burgers and salads – to another who spends hours each day at different fast food restaurants, just to purge privately in a bevy of single-person bathrooms around town, audiences will follow the lives of people whose food behaviors are consuming and threatening their lives. Other stories include: a young man who will chew and swallow an entire pack of gum instead of eating food to feel satiated; a young woman who will eat ant-covered food out of a trash can, only to then purge in whatever she can find – her boots or even her purse; a young man for whom food is "dirty" and who, as a result, has a compulsion to wear rubber gloves before touching anything related to eating; a woman who drowns all of her food in gravy and has found other creative ways to eat around her gastric band and a young mother who wears layers and layers of clothes in the scorching Phoenix sun just to hide a body she feels is "sickly deformed" as a result of her pregnancies. In a particularly heartbreaking case, viewers also are introduced to a woman who was recently homeless and will drive 2 ½ hours to purchase her comfort food: white chalkboard chalk.

With the help of trained medical professionals, highly experienced therapists and nutrition specialists, these patients will attempt to begin the long, painful and often shocking journey to recovery. JD Roth, Executive Producer and CEO of 3 Ball Productions, said, "One might assume that a show about severe eating disorders would focus solely on participants' bizarre behavior around food; but this show really is about the incredible fortitude and strength of people with intense obstacles to overcome, and how they strive to get their lives back on track. We're very proud to be working with E!, not only in shedding light on a dangerous issue, but also in offering hope and a path to recovery."

Each one-hour episode of "What's Eating You" introduces viewers to two new patients. Each must go through an eye opening medical evaluation to ascertain exactly what type of damage the disorder has done to his or her body. Frightening findings can include severe bone loss, electrolyte abnormalities and an increased risk of cardiac arrest. Cameras chronicle patients in their home lives as they begin to work on the recovery plan created for them by their doctors. Viewers will also meet family and friends – many of whom had no idea that their loved ones were suffering in secret – and witness how simple acts that seem so common and ordinary to the average American are watershed moments for them. Recovery is by no means easy; patients will encounter many roadblocks along the way and not everyone will be successful. However, despite all the secrets and the shame, there is a resounding message: hope.

As more young women and men are compelled to achieve perfection, "What's Eating You" asks some tough questions: How can people's perceptions get so off track? How can they lose their basic understanding of reality? How much is society at fault and, most importantly, what can be done? kind of want to punch something.

Can we talk about how gross this is, please? Let's shall.

1. The name of the fucking show is What's Eating You?

2. It's on E!, aka Entertainment Television. So please don't give me this bs about how you're hoping to transform lives in between reruns of Holly's World and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. This show is for entertainment purposes, and these people are being used to sell the hot mental illness of the moment.


3. It's by the same producer who created two weight-loss shows, I Can Make You Thin, and The Biggest Loser, the latter of which has been blamed by a former contestant for actually pushing her to develop an eating disorder. You can't be a promoter of competitive weight loss and the idea of "thin" as a personal victory and then turn around and make yourself some kind of crusader for those of us with eating disorders. "As more young women and men are compelled to achieve perfection..." Really? Maybe it's because YOUR television shows make them feel like they're worthless unless they lose some weight. You're part of the problem, dude. Oh, and also? This is the production company that felt it was necessary to give Mystery his own show, which says quite a bit about how they view women, don't you think?


4. This entire press release reads like it was written by a carnival barker: "Come see the bizarre Sweet-and-Low addict! The chalk eater! The frightening terrors of the eating disorder world await!" Behaviors like this aren't as rare as you'd think, and trying to present dysmorphia, pica, and the often peculiar (well, not to us while sick, but peculiar to the non-ED world) behaviors and rituals that accompany anorexia and bulimia as some sort of freak show/science project is insulting and shows a true lack of understanding in terms of how these illnesses work. These people don't need to be filmed and humiliated and gawked over; they need treatment, and privacy, and support. There's a difference between education and exploitation: when you're in the deepest part of your illness, you're not there. You're just not there. Your brain is so far gone and the illness has taken hold and you don't think logically or clearly; there's something really off about having these people consent to being filmed under the fog of illness, and something even worse about the impact this exposure will have on their recovery: everyone in America will see their eating disorder—it's hard enough to recover from an ED without feeling like you'll be a total failure in the eyes of millions of strangers if you don't get it right on the first try.

5. Anyone with a "severe eating disorder" should not be "followed in home care." If these people really cared about eating disorders as much as they claim, they'd pay for these people to go to an inpatient facility. Or they'd do a reality show about the misconceptions of eating disorders, or the the impact on our nation's collective body image that celebrities like, oh, I don't know, the Kardashians, have by selling diet pills as a side job to their popular reality show. It's one thing to claim that you're just trying to educate and give the folks at home some hope. But if you can't do it without describing the behavior of your own subjects as "bizarre" and "frightening," maybe you're the one who needs the education.


Earlier: The Weird World Of Illness Entertainment
Why The Media Should Stop Treating Sick Women As Celebrities


Image via Shutterstock/detwo.


Snacktastic Part III: the Return of the Spatula

As a professional, I wonder who these highly trained professionals are that think it's either therapeutic or ethical to treat people on camera for the sake of some reality show. I can see people sharing their own experience. I can see professionals talking about case studies—I've talked about case studies before in papers written for public consumption but the identity is pretty hidden and embedded within a larger theoretical framework. Some clinicians who are on television—cougcoughdrphil—are clinicians who have lost their license and not accredited but I think some accreditation agencies need to look at the use of professionals in reality shows. It doesn't seem ethical. I think licensing boards should go after these professionals.

However, to be fair, Intervention is a pretty good show without any clean or entirely happy ending. Also, one of my good friends is a clinician who works specifically with hoarders. It's surprising how well treatment works with some people and so quickly—it can be that clean and quick with that condition. I found that when I have treated simple phobias (simple, meaning just a single discreet phobia). The first time, the woman overcame the phobia so fast, I felt like a motherfucking magician and she overcame it in a permanent way. Some conditions for some reason are much more easily overcome; as well, some clients are so treatment ready, they go through it very quickly. So I'm not sure if Hoarders is unrealistic as much as some hoarders have psychiatric issues that aren't as intractible and difficult to overcome as others. Mind you, I do mean some hoarders—others don't respond well and quickly to treatment.