The Most Extreme Eating Disorders Show Ever?

E!'s "What's Eating You?" promises drama, education

Tonight, E! premiers a six-part miniseries about compulsive eating disorders, titled What's Eating You? From the hype surrounding the reality series, the potential for gratuitous sensationalizing seems immense. E! has promised a program that will document  “bizarre rituals” and “extreme habits,” including:

-“A woman who must put countless packets of artificial sweetener on anything she eats -- including burgers and salads.”

-“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 woman who was recently homeless and will drive 2 hours to purchase her comfort food: White chalkboard chalk.”

Clearly, this show is angling for ratings gold and they'll likely get it. Ours is a voyeuristic society and it’s practically impossible not to look when a TV show is broadcasting such extreme misfortune. Much like drivers will slow down and crane their necks to get a glimpse of the body being carried away on a stretcher from a grisly car accident, viewers will tune in to see just how emaciated and frail these individuals can be, to see the woman who eats toilet paper soaked in pickle juice or who wraps measuring tape around a waist not much bigger than her neck. And, most likely, they will do it for a cheap thrill or to gather juicy fodder for water cooler chit chat the next day. Or worse:

“Why are [you] instructing girls/boys on eating disorders?," asks Kcarpenter on the E! messageboards. "I understand you're attempting to be helpful and show us the dangers, but you're not. You have no idea how many girls in my school as a kid used these type of 'educational' and 'shock' videos that were meant to deter them from having food problems, actually served as a learning tool.”

Adds Rumisluv, “Let me tell you how many girls and women are counting the days until this show begins, including me. This is not a positive thing!...The normal mind would view these things and process them as dangerous and sad. Unfortunately the disordered mind views these things as motivation, tools to convince oneself that it is never enough… Girls not affected will learn tricks of the trade and ignore the danger signs. Girls already affected will use it as fuel for their fire.”

I had the opportunity to interview What’s Eating You? therapist Jordana Mansbacher, Psy.D., about the show. I asked her about criticism that What’s Eating You? is needlessly exploitative. But she insisted the patients have said they did not feel exploited in any way. “This show…is about real issues that are going on in epidemic proportions (5 to 10 million U.S. women and one million men) and we wanted to show how deep this disease is and show the initial stages of therapy, which most people don’t go into because of shame. We’re not doing it for shock value.”

Mansbacher said the show’s main thrust is public education: Viewers will see what it’s like to be prescreened, to receive intense outpatient therapy and medical and nutritional services, as well as aftercare (show participants receive six months of follow-up care.) “We’re trying to take away the stigma of shame and guilt and say, ‘This is what happens when your first enter treatment, and this is what can happen with continued treatment.’”

Some more of our Q&A:

iVillage: Do you think the public underestimates the amount of time and effort it takes to overcome an eating disorder?

JM: Unless you live with someone or had an eating disorder yourself, you have no idea what it takes to overcome this. The only thing I could relate it to is overcoming a severe substance abuse problem where the person can’t live without their drug. This is a 24/7 psychological and mental disorder. To get over that takes intense treatment and people aren’t aware of that. For treatment to really work, you have to say, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” And that can take years and years. Because in the beginning, when you’re losing weight and getting positive reinforcement from peers, you feel in control.

iVillage: The cases seem so extreme. Will viewers be able to relate?

JM: Yes, anybody in any stage of an eating disorder is going to identify with it. You’ll see the patients say, “It started with restricting a few calories, then meals, then it turned into binging and purging.” You don’t start out severe, going from eating 2300 calories a day and a healthy lifestyle to all of the sudden restricting to 100 calories and binging and purging. It’s a progressive disease. And underlying every eating disorder are a whole host of other problems -- depression, anxiety, abuse, family problems, divorce, the need to be perfect.

iVillage: Why is there still so much shame when it comes to seeking treatment?

JM: It’s very difficult to say, “I’m out of control.” There is a part of the brain that gets changed when one has an eating disorder. Sometimes they develop Body Dysmorphic Disorder and can’t see themselves the way the world sees them. The world is telling you one thing but you say, “I look great. I look just like my idol, the model in the magazine with sticks for legs.” There’s a lot of shame and guilt, but also a lot of pride. [Sufferers may be afraid to seek treatment because they think,] “I don’t have an identity without this eating disorder. I’m either a sick person, or the person constantly getting complimented for exercising so much and keeping my stamina up.” It speaks to low self-esteem. Eating disorders are very tricky diseases; they really play with the mind. For treatment, there needs to be a lot of intense therapy, monitoring, support from friends and family, medical support to combat the intense eating disordered brain that gets turned on.

iVillage: What do you say to people when they ask, ”I have a friend with an eating disorder. How can I help her?”

JM: Most people with an eating disorder internalize it. It’s private, like a secret best friend. I would sit down and, in a non-judgmental way, say, “It looks like you’re struggling with something -- whether it’s eating or body image or weight -- and if you are, I would like to help you.” That may mean finding the right treatment, talking to her parents, listening to how hard it’s been. Open a dialogue.

I have to reserve judgment until I see the actual show tonight, but I must admit, I remain skeptical. These people are in so deep, their problems so unbelievable extreme, that I don’t understand how they could have been in a healthy enough position to consent to being followed and filmed. If the true intent is to help educate the public, why not focus on more relatable issues? When I had my eating disorder in college, I didn’t have a single friend who ate chalk or vomited in her Jimmy Choos (though I suppose I may have and just didn’t know it) -- but I did know countless women who restricted calories, worked out obsessively, binged and purged and more. I also fear What’s Eating You? will prove terribly triggering to viewers who have struggled with EDs before. Mansbacher isn’t concerned: “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.’  It may trigger people to actually get help, to say, ‘I don’t want to lose my job. I don’t want to be that freak out there.’” 

But the E! messageboards are already buzzing with talk of triggering. Foodisfuel wrote, “I have recovered from a severe eating disorder and have been a nutrition therapist for individuals with eating disorders for 20 years. I agree with a few of the posts that feel this show may trigger those who already suffer, could possibly trigger the onset of an eating disorder in vulnerable individuals or exacerbate an existing eating disorder in someone who suffers. I worry that the show will sensationalize the eating disorder behaviors for ratings and will under-emphasize the root causes and the treatment methods.”

I just hope the individuals on the show were able to find the help they needed and don’t suffer any more as a result of having their psychological crises broadcast nationwide.

What’s Eating You? premieres October 13 at 10:00 PM, ET/PT on E!.

Will you watch 'What's Eating You?' ? Chime in below.


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