According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), as many as 10 million females and 1 million males suffer from an eating disorder in the United States. Therefore, it is a serious and relevant public health problem that (not surprisingly) gets media attention. "Starving Secrets" is not the first movie or television show to take a documentary-style approach to portraying those that suffer from these disorders:
- MTV's series "True Life" (which I have long admired for their portrayal and stigma reduction efforts regarding various medical conditions...I have been less impressed by episodes like "I'm a Jersey Shore girl"). True Life aired "I have an eating disorder" on April 3, 2003.
- HBO documentary "Thin": This special followed four women during their in patient stays at the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Florida. It premiered on November 14, 2006. I remember this being both incredibly powerful and difficult to watch.
- E! "What's Eating You?": Admittedly, I only watched one episode of this show. True to E! form (Ahem- Kim's Fairytale Wedding), they are more about sensationalism versus journalism and stigma reduction as compared to other networks.
As with the portrayal of other mental health disorders in the media, I hope that these shows will do something positive. Specifically- reduce the stigma around these disorders and normalize help seeking behaviors.
However, I am also greatly concerned that shows like "Starving Secrets" will actually endanger vulnerable audience members by offering a "how-to guide" to having an eating disorder. The concern stems from research on pro-eating disorder websites. They can offer "thinsperation" to stay skinny by the images portrayed. They can also give tips and strategies for hiding/refusing food or getting rid of it. Sometimes people don't realize that by telling their story in vivid detail, they are actually sharing their "creative tips" for sustaining an eating disorder.
That said, I will definitely be setting the DVR on December 20 to see the show and assess it more accurately. What do others think? Do reality shows like these have the potential to endanger the public's health? Or do their "pros" (e.g., stigma reduction) outweigh the risks?