Can A TV Show "Make" You Bulimic?

For what seems like the first time in eight years, US Weekly has chosen not to feature Jon & Kate on their cover, instead highlighting the eating and weight-related struggles of Hills star Stephanie Pratt. Flanked by the headline “The Hills Make Me Bulimic,” Pratt smiles weakly in a pink bikini and discussed “The agony of working with skinny girls,” “5000 calorie-a-day bingeing,” and “How she tried to kill herself.”

The 5'7" 23-year-old says she started bingeing and purging after seeing a 2007 scene with Lauren Conrad in which she wore a horizontally striped sweater that made her look a bit wide.  "I was horrified. I remember saying, 'I can't believe how huge I look walking over to Lauren.'"  (Here’s a pic of her, on the left, with costars LC and Lauren.) To cope, she started doing things like drinking vinegar to quell her appetite, only to later find herself eating pizza, fries and grilled cheese behind closed doors and then throwing it up. Once, while filming in Hawaii, she said she asked costar Audrina Patridge, "What looks better, 'shirt on or off?'" Patridge replied,"On."

Despite saying the show’s producers never put pressure on her to lose weight, Pratt says, "It's embarrassing working with skinny girls." This seems to be the crux of the story. Like many of us, Stephanie reports feeling “big” in comparison to those around her. And while this is the first report of a Hills-related eating disorder, some of the ladies on the show have clearly succumbed to body image pressures in other ways: " Patridge recently had her breasts augmented and posed in a gold lame bikini, seductively eating a burger, for Carl Jr.; Pratt’s new new sister-in-law, Heidi Montag, got nose AND boobs jobs and – shocker! – recently posed for Playboy.

My question: Can a TV show actually “give” someone an eating disorder? Or is it more of a contributing factor, something that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been thrust (by her own doing or not) into the spotlight on a looks-based show? In that case, it’s more like pouring gasoline on an already-burning house. But here, Pratt is saying the show was what set the house on fire in the first place. I hesitate to give a TV show such power, but we know it IS possible. Television can has an immensely powerful impact on our body image – remember the 1989 Harvard study which showed how the introduction of TV programs like Baywatch and Beverly Hills, 90210, on the island of Fiji basically induced bulimia in a huge number of women? This is a nation that had traditionally cherished the fuller figure, where bingeing and purging was unheard of, but after watching Pam Anderson run slow-mo in a high-cut red bathing suit, Harvard Medical School anthropologist Anne Becker found that 74% of teenage girls felt they were "too big or fat." Fifteen percent of the girls reported vomiting to control weight.

Pratt does say in US Weekly that she previously dabbled in bulimia and also struggled mightily with drug addiction, once attempting suicide. So she clearly has a history of mental health issues – not the ideal candidate for a reality TV show (health-wise, not ratings-wise, I mean.) That means the show didn’t bring her ED on out of thin air; more like it fanned the flames. Not that it matters – a woman struggling is a woman struggling and she doesn’t need to be blamed or shamed. I’m glad she spoke out in the sense that it brings increased awareness to an important topic. But by putting all the blame on the program, she’s not taking responsibility for her part in her disorder. Any of us who have struggled with anorexia or bulimia have to step up and accept that we made choices along the way – biology might have driven us down a dangerous road but we all decided to strap on a seatbelt at one time or another. And if we recovered, that means we chose to grab hold of the emergency brake and grind the car to a halt. Unfortunately, Pratt admits to not yet being ready to devote herself full-time to getting help (she’s worried that a nutritionist or therapist would encourage her to “eat, eat, eat,” which she’s not ready to do.) This could send a dangerous message to women reading who think the same thing, who equate eating with getting big.

I don’t blame Pratt. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have millions of people talking badly about you, blogging about you and how you look. And I know exactly what it feels like to always feel bigger than the girls around you.  But Pratt’s situation was not as clear-cut as Fiji – she entered the situation with a few wooden beams and planks already laid down, which made it easier for bulimia to build a home. So the headline “The Hills Make Me Bulimic,” is a tad scapegoat-ish and ignores the issue of personal responsibility, a crucial component to finally getting better.

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