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Take a peek at my DVR and you’ll be treated to an array of psych-based reality TV shows: Intervention. Hoarders. Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty. Celebrity Rehab.
Looks like I may need to delete some old episodes of Real Housewives, though, because the Oprah Winfrey Network is slated to premier a new series, Inside Rehab, about life inside an eating disorder treatment facility. A group of patients will be followed as they participate in an intensive 42-day recovery program.
"Inside Rehab takes viewers into the world of eating disorders in a raw and transformative way," says OWN chief creative officer Lisa Erspamer. "Whether you have issues with food or know someone who does, this series offers perspective, hope and the possibility to see food-based issues in a new light."
Oprah is hardly the first person to seize on a cultural hot button topic like anorexia or bulimia and create a show around it (See: The Price of Beauty; Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew; Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.) But I wonder if it’s even possible to make a show about eating disorder patients and NOT exploit them in some way? These women will no doubt be in an extremely fragile state of mind -– I can’t imagine how they could have given truly informed consent to appear on a show, considering how altered their minds must be (I say this with compassion, but judgment). Or, as psychotherapist Irene Rubaum-Keller points out on Huffington Post, "If I am so sick that I need inpatient treatment, do I want to be concerned with my hair and make-up while I talk about how I want to die and how much I hate myself? I don't think so."
But more than that, the fact is that many people will tune in for the pure voyeurism involved, and unless the show is executed with great care, there's a risk of spreading or reinforcing negative stereotypes about anorexics or bulimics, rather than promoting understanding and empathy.
Then again, Oprah seems to be the consummate professional, and her work skills are reinforced by her own experience with an eating disorder: Emotional overeating. Ever since she carted out that red truck filled with fat while sporting super skinny jeans and a black turtleneck (and probably before that, too), Oprah has waged a very public battle with her weight, and hasn’t been shy about discussing her difficulties and triumphs. Anorexia and bulimia, the types of disorders likely to be covered in her new series, aren’t all that different from obesity: Physical manifestations of unmanageable emotions. Anorexics withhold food as a means of feeling control; overeaters stuff it down their throats without thinking in an effort to soothe themselves. It’s all on a continuum.
OWN’s announcement came just one day after E! went public with its own upcoming ED miniseries about bizarre compulsive eating disorders, titled What's Eating You? From the names alone, it sounds like E!’s show will be far more gratuitous and sensational. Your fears will be confirmed when you learn the lineup includes “a woman who eats a roll of toilet paper dipped in pickle juice every night before bed” and “a woman who eats everything from paper towels to magazines in her sleep without ever realizing it."
Clearly, shows about recovering eating disorder patients are hoping for ratings gold, and they'll likely get it. 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 it to see just how emaciated and frail these women can be, to see the woman who eats toilet paper dipped in pickle juice. And, most likely, they will do it for a cheap thrill, or to gather juicy fodder for water cooler chit chat the next day. Then again, we already do this with every other reality TV show that exposes the underbelly of some psychological disorder (like compulsive hoarding or drug addiction). I just hope Oprah’s OWN does the issue justice, and that the women involved are able to get the help they so clearly need.
Speaking of reality TV, who watched the final episode of Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty last night? It was quite good. After visiting seven countries, Simpson returns home to Los Angeles with a self-proclaimed "healthier perspective on beauty." She met with high school girls to ask them what they’re most self-conscious of (everyone’s answer: weight) and then staged a fashion show, highlighting unique fashions from the many countries she filmed in. The highlight is when Simpson brings Panya Bunjan, a woman she met in Thailand, to LA. Panya’s skin was burned and permanently discolored by whitening products she used in an effort o make herself look whiter. She’s so embarrassed and ashamed of her face, she refuses to go out in public.
Then she gets a makeover from Simpson’s tram, including her hairstylist BFF Ken Paves. Her "after" look was just stunning, with smooth, even skin (courtesy of makeup) and long hair extensions. Panya broke down when she saw herself, then proudly walked the runway, sobbing into Jessica's shoulder, “I happy. I happy." The star was so inspired by that change, as well as by the journey of a little Indian girl named Meenah, born with a horribly disfigured cleft palate and lip, fixed through the help of Simpson and Operation Smile - that she decided to launch A Beautiful Me, an initiative designed to make a positive difference in the lives of youth in elementary school through college. If we can walked away from Oprah's docu-series with that kind of real change, and not just a gawk-worthy tidbit to gossip about over Facebook...well, THAT, to me, sounds to me like something to smile about.
Will you watch Oprah's Inside Rehab or any of these other reality shows? Chime in below.