High Def Eating Disorders

Can too many close-ups kill your body image?

We can always count on 30 Rock for a pop culture-inspired belly laugh or three. A year ago, when Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) was in talks to star in her own fictional show, Dealbreakers, 30 Rock treated us to a spoof on high definition TV.  After spending time and money on a new hairstyle and glasses-sparing off-brand “Lasig” surgery, Lemon took to the set for a screen test. But once she stepped in front of the high definition camera, aesthetic hell broke loose. Not only was every pore and facial hair magnified to ridiculous proportions, but moles the size of butterscotch disks mysteriously appeared. A Frida Kahlo unibrow crawled across previously plucked skin. The point: High def TV seizes upon and magnifies every potential physical flaw.

I thought about this last night as I watched Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team. (Don’t judge me!) During the second round of tryouts, the judges sat in the stadium and watched each woman dance -- and make mistakes -- on the high-def 60-yard Jumbotron. This sounds like my worst nightmare, far more terrifying than being chased by a zombie (hey, it was Halloween last night, after all), buried alive, or romantically rejected by Justin Bieber. My fears proved correct when the judges began critiquing aloud each woman’s body and how it appeared on the mega screen. They weren’t just stating facts (ie "She needs to tone up her thighs a bit.") There was full on snark. Laughter, even.

Is looking conventionally attractive a prerequisite for wearing the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading uniform? Of course it is. And true, the Jumbotron may be a huge factor when considering who performs at Cowboy's Stadium. But have some decency, judges, will you? It would take a self image of steel to watch this show, hear the comments made about your body and not develop an eating disorder. As one Television Without Pity commenter put it, the judges weren’t merely being critical, but rather made themselves out to be “catty bitches who enjoy busting on women [who] don't look like they just walked off a porn set -- which seems to be the DCC preferred look -- which is fine, except it's a wee bit cruel with the laughter when they know they're miked and being taped, in my opinion.” 

Another program whose misogynistic treatment of women has me fearing for healthy body images: The Jersey Shore. MTV introduces the show online with "The eight housemates of Jersey Shore are back for another season of GTL, fist-pumping, and battling grenades." A “grenade,” for those not in the know, is a heavy, unattractive woman. She may also be referred to as a “hippopotamus” or "zoo creature" by the reality show’s male stars. In truth, these so-called “grenades” are neither overweight nor unattractive, but have simply incurred the men’s wrath by refusing to have sex with them. Still, I wonder how horrible it must feel to see yourself on TV -- and be seen by millions of other viewers -- as three of the country’s most popular male reality TV stars denigrate you and your body.

Speaking of eating disorders in high def, I need to issue a mea culpa. A few weeks ago, I wrote a preview of the new hit E! miniseries about compulsive eating disorders, What's Eating You?  From the hype surrounding the reality series, the potential for gratuitous sensationalizing seemed immense. (Viewers were promised a program documenting  “bizarre rituals” and “extreme habits,” including “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.”  and “A woman who was recently homeless and will drive 2 hours to purchase her comfort food: White chalkboard chalk.”) I was so turned off by the concept that I blasted the show, even after interviewing What’s Eating You? therapist Jordana Mansbacher, PsyD.

I have now seen two episodes and I must say, it’s not nearly as bad as I had feared. Yes, the show’s producers selected the most extremely disordered individuals they can find. But the program isn’t nearly as freak show sensationalistic as I had feared. A significant portion of each 60-minute episode focuses on therapy, both solo and family. The women (so far, only female patients have been featured) seem to be portrayed fairly and with some compassion. I didn’t find it triggering -- in fact, I responded as Mansbacher said I might: “I think if somebody’s into recovery and maintaining a good healthy lifestyle, they’ll look at this and say, ‘I don’t want to go back there.’” 

For now, it appears I need to go through my DVR list and clean out all of these shows that seem to be dealing mini blows to the self-esteem of women everywhere. I have a feeling that all I’ll be left with, though, are Jeopardy and Dora.

Do you think the shows Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team and The Jersey Shore are misogynistic? Chime in below.

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