An actress who had her own very public struggle with anorexia almost 20 years ago is teaming up with a television network with a mostly female audience to do a reality show about eating disorders. Via Facebook and a casting company, the show reaches out to women declared untreatable, and offers them professional help in exchange for letting producers film their struggle with the disease.
The show is called "Starving Secrets," and one of the executive producers, Ted Haimes, said he decided to do the series because he thought "It would be fascinating to get an inside view of this ... It was their dirty little secret."
The series, hosted by former child actress Tracey Gold and airing Fridays on Lifetime, sounds like a spectacularly bad idea.
"We do not support putting people who are ill on television," Lynn S. Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), who had not seen any episodes of the show or a trailer, told The Huffington Post earlier this week.
"To me, it's wasted treatment," she said. "I really don't think it's going to be easy for people to be honest in their treatment, their thoughts, their counseling [while on camera]."
"I understand NEDA's position," said Carolyn Costin, owner of Rain Rock, the residential treatment center outside of Eugene, Ore., where she is shown treating a 28-year-old woman named Rivka for anorexia in the show's first episode.
Costin, a former NEDA board member, said that she and the other therapists involved in the show "were all cautious, and some of us still are."
This is the kind of skepticism that Michael Branton, another one of the show's executive producers, said he is used to. Branton's production company, GRB Entertainment, is also behind A & E's Emmy-winning reality series "Intervention," which facilitates confrontations between addicts and their families and offers free rehab. When "Intervention" premiered in 2005, it was met with the criticism that it, along with other reality shows, "put damaged lives on display to attract our pitying eyes" and "pretend[ed] to repair those lives."
"Every so often there's a survey piece done asking, 'Has television gone too far?'" said Branton. "It's a good question. It needs to be asked. There are probably irresponsible ways of confronting eating disorders" on TV, he said, but he insists "Starving Secrets" didn't go that route.
For me, the most disconcerting aspect of the show, and "What's Eating You," a similar, now-canceled series aired by E! in fall 2010, is that it promulgates our strange cultural fascination with the eating disorder narrative.
It's spectatorship that seems to have begun in the 70s and hasn't stopped since. In her excellent book "Going Hungry," an anthology of essays from female writers on their experiences with anorexia, journalist Kate Taylor traces this fixation back to a 1974 New York Times Magazine article that described anorexics as "gorgeous waifs" who were "experts at exhibiting love and sympathy." I'm not sure if it was that or the publication of psychologist Hilde Bruch's book "The Golden Cage," which presented a similar image of the perfect little girl trapped by her own perfect willpower, but we have been mining eating disorders for drama ever since -- in magazine stories, personal essays, blogs, documentaries, and of course, after-school specials.
"Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," "For the Love of Nancy" (starring, incidentally, Tracey Gold), "A Secret Between Friends," "Dying to be Perfect," "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story": These made-for-TV movies were the "treatment films" we cycled through at the inpatient facility where I spent the summer of 2001 in treatment for anorexia. (I was assured that a copy of 1981's seminal "The Best Little Girl In the World" starring Jennifer Jason Leigh had once been part of the rotation, but after so many viewings, the VHS cassette had given out.)
The acting was mostly terrible, the production value usually low, the scenarios lacked nuance (at the end of "For the Love of Nancy," Tracey Gold's character's request for a bagel is meant to indicate her imminent recovery), but I realized that the films, several of which I'd seen before I ever became anorexic, made me aware on some level that my disease was inherently interesting -- at least enough to make five TV movies about -- and that perhaps, by extension, I was, too.
I had gotten sick, like many with eating disorders do, when I went to college. Suddenly, I felt no sense of identity, no path -- all at once, my life had no plot. Then my eating disorder provided one. Suddenly I was worthy of attention, a member of a rare, studied, even envied breed. For years afterward, much to my shame, I felt that anorexia was the most interesting thing I had ever done.
Apparently I wasn't alone. Consider the multitudes of memoirs written by women who have recovered or are recovering from eating disorders -- "Stick Figure," "Wasted," "Running on Empty," "Starving," "Solitaire," etc. For many, the smart, articulate authors of these books, the eating disorder narrative was the one story they thought they had to tell.
Which is why I was skeptical when Gold said, "There is a real need to talk about" eating disorders, and when Branton added, "These stories need to be told. People need to confront eating disorders." We never stopped telling them.
And did Gold and Blanton and Haimes think about how putting the story a person is already living, a story that may already have become his or her identity, on camera might make giving up that story -- and recovery -- much harder?
Carolyn Costin said she consulted experts in the field before agreeing to participate in "Starving Secrets." The conclusion among her colleagues, she said, was that "it's going to happen -- we're not going to stop reality TV -- and hopefully somebody with integrity will do it."
"I can only hope that it does what we wanted it to do, which was give people hope and show that a) legitimate psychological issues are in play, that it's not just vain girls on a diet and b) that recovery is possible," she said.
The first episode, at least, reveals multiple unfortunate elements. Costin said she was especially upset to see that the trailer showed patients with bulimia vomiting. "Tracey Gold told [the treatment providers] that she didn't want to show clients purging, and that she wasn't going to do that to clients, so a lot of treatment professionals involved in the show are upset at the producers and the network," she said.
I hated that the participants are introduced on the screen by their first name and their eating disorder, as though they are one in the same:
It is true, however, that there isn't much that is glamorous or even sensationalist about the way these women are presented. Both have been in treatment multiple times before and have been sick fora bout 10 years each. Melissa, 22, says that her family has pretty much given up on her. Their lives seem devoid of everything -- jobs, relationships -- except the behaviors consuming them: for Melissa, binging, purging and obsessive compulsive rituals; for Rivka, hours of solitary walking. It doesn't look intriguing or heroic or even particularly dramatic.
"With many of these women, I don't think they can end up much worse than when I found them," Gold said. "So I think that the opportunity to get free treatment supersedes everything."
Both women in the first episode do seem to really want the treatment that their therapists and nutritionists are providing pro bono to them and to Lifetime. And since very few insurance companies currently cover residential treatment for eating disorders (an October ruling by California's Ninth Circuit could lead to reform of the insurance companies' stance, but not anytime soon), it must have seemed like a godsend.
The big question is whether the treatment will work. Haimes claims that six of the 10 women the show followed "had fantastic success." Citing the supposedly high recovery rate of "Intervention" -- reportedly 71 percent, based on periodic check-ins with alumni -- Branton said, "It seems that when people participate in the right television recovery" -- a disconcerting concept for sure -- "it can actually be very beneficial."
Gold said this makes sense in light of her own experience. When her eating disorder was made public in January of 1992, she said, "I thought it was the worst thing that could happen in my life. But it was probably one of the best because I wasn't able to hide [the illness]. Sometimes when you're made to face it in such a public forum, it makes you more accountable and want to get better and make people proud."
[spoiler alert] While Costin remains skeptical, she said, Rivka's subsequent recovery despite the odds has her rethinking the claim that "television recovery" doesn't work. "She's recovered. She's weight restored. So maybe [the idea that on-camera treatment doesn't work is] not the case."
"Maybe she was just ready," Costin continued, but no matter, "I feel very grateful that Rivka got this treatment. I think it saved her life."
WATCH: Tracey Gold talks "Starving Secrets" on CNN