Do Shows Like Starving Secrets With Tracey Gold Actually Give Girls Ideas About How To Nurture Eating Disorders?

Lifetime‘s new reality series Starving Secrets with Tracey Gold has a really unfortunate, and easily misinterpreted, title. In the Crushable editorial meeting, we were all convinced that it was a show where the formerly anorexic actress relapsed; my friends thought the “drama” came from her bringing other girls with eating disorders under her wing.

Here’s what Starving Secrets with Tracey Gold actually is: In the style of Made, Tracey acts as the coach for two girls per episode, listening to their reasons why they suffer from ED and then matching them with treatment centers for their specific anxieties and goals.

Back to that title. It’s probably meant to remind viewers that these women are all battling ED in secret. (Then wouldn’t it be called Secret Starvers?) But I can’t help but wonder if it’s meant to be like the bait-and-switch thinspiration communities on LiveJournal—drawing in anorexic and bulimic women with a seemingly empathetic title, then revealing that it’s actually a series about treatment.

However, the real problem may lay in the show’s content. Shows about self-destructive behaviors often toe the uncomfortable divide between showing addicts and sufferers getting treatment… and giving viewers far too detailed instructions on how to indulge those same compulsions.

In the pilot episode we met Melissa, a 22-year-old whose bulimia has not only alienated her from her friends and family but has also caused her to develop OCD; and 28-year-old Rivka, an anorexic for twelve years who walks six hours a day to burn off the calories she doesn’t eat. These details make the “characters” more real for most viewers, but imagine aspiring anorexics and bulimics filing away new rules for how to carry on their ED in secret.

Consider that Rivka herself, while in treatment, mentions in her confessional that the therapists at these centers won’t tell you you’ve gained weight unless it’s more than two pounds a week. When she steps on the scale after two weeks and the woman simply says, “Good job,” she knows that she’s gained fewer than four pounds. (In reality, she’s gained only one, putting her weight at 77 lb.)

While Rivka has a support system watching in anguish as she wastes away, Melissa is at first a shut-in in her own apartment, unable to hold down a job and spending her remaining food stamps on food she’ll just purge when she’s finished. In fact, that’s exactly the next step that we see. Therapist Carolyn Costin told HuffPo that the producers ignored her and others’ requests that they not include this graphic and informative footage:

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.

We might as well have been watching Melissa shoot up. We learn exactly how she manages her isolated, food-obsessed existence, and how to do it for ourselves should we want to. It’s the opposite with Rivka, who (as I said) spends hours outside of her home. Watch just a few minutes of her segment, and you know that if you can force yourself to eat and then walk for 6 hours, you’ll burn off about 1,500 calories.

Even when the girls have both seemingly recovered and Tracey visits them to observe their healthy weights, don’t you think that viewers struggling with ED will only focus on these girls at the height of their disorders?

Of course, there’s the argument that these impressionable viewers should have a strong enough support system to sit them down and explain how Tracey and Lifetime help these young women go from a dark, dangerous place to happier lives and bodies.

I think the best compromise is what advocate Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh suggests in another HuffPo column: Show the neurological underpinnings of ED and emphasize that the participants did not choose this. Starving Secrets moved toward this by highlighting the OCD that Melissa had developed from her bulimia; in one scene, she’s keening like a child because she can’t bear to sit in a “dirty” chair.

More moments like these, showing how unglamorous ED are, would go a long way toward convincing young women suffering in secret that this show is not an instruction manual but rather a cautionary tale.

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    • Crystal

      No one with an eating disorder is unaware of the possibility of exercising compulsively or purging to reduce caloric input. This series won’t be teaching anyone with a disorder anything they don’t already know, in grave detail.

      • Suz

        Although that may be true to a certain degree, this show introduces a new level of competition within the disorder itself. It “spectaclizes” ED as something to be watched rather that digging into the underlying issues behind EDs. I believe the show also provides a new outlet for those with the disorder to question, “I’m not THAT sick…I’m not on a TV show.” Simply allowing those suffering to see, in great detail, what Rivka and Melissa are going through while Tracey Gold tries to save the day. She is not a licensed therapist, just someone who has gone through ED as well. More awareness driven insight to the disorder may present the show’s message a bit more clearly.

    • Emily

      I don’t think the show is a bad thing for viewers suffering from EDs. I myself am still struggling with an ED, and the show, like the above poster said, did not teach me any new ‘unhealthy behaviors’, so to say, that I didn’t already know. However, it DID motivate me to keep fighting with my treatment team. It taught me that, despite the millions out there who don’t understand EDs, there are some that do (like Tracey Gold) and that recovery is in fact possible. Now, for the “I’m not THAT sick” persective, I can see how that might play a role, but that plays a role anywhere you go with an ED- on the streets, as your distorted mind makes everyone look skinnier than you, or even when you go to treatment centers. It’s a battle you just have to fight. And about Tracey Gold not being a licensed therapist, I’m sorry, but coming from an ED perspective, someone who has gone through and recovered from an ED can help you much more and in many different ways than any licensed therapist ever could. It’s something you just can’t fully understand or know 100% what to say 100% of the time or know what the person’s thinking UNLESS you’ve been there. In fact, one of my biggest supports right now is someone who is doing really well in recovery, because I can go to her when my ED thoughts are strong, and she knows what I’m thinking and how to fight back. So overall, I think it’s a good thing. If anything, it wakes the rest of America up to how serious of an issue this is and how it’s more than just a self-obssessed, superficial thing that can be easily treated and will disappear after one short trip to a treatment center.

      • anonymous

        you are right, but, i am wondering more about tracy golds reasons for doing all of this..guess she needs this for her own recovery. i think she looks really lousy…really bad. i do, however, agree that a person who has been through it can really relate on a level of been there done it…i had eatting disorders for over 25 years, and through therapy, and my own process, i have completely recovered 100%, and that has been 20 years ago. i worked with people for awhile as a hypnotherapist, yet i do question tracy golds role in this, and her obsession with these people.i still feel she absolutely needs it for her to keep herself recovered more than the other people that need healing..

    • Ninargh

      Sigh. Whatever Gold’s motives, I imagine this is going to be little more than a combination of shock-tv mockumentary and eating disorder triggers. I wish I could say that I won’t be watching it, knowing that it’ll feed directly into my disorder. But I totally will.

    • Roz

      I know this is an old post, but I wanted to comment anyway. I was in treatment with Melissa (about 2 years before this show), and it was really upsetting when she had to leave due to insurance problems. She was obviously really suffering. I was really happy when I saw that she was on this show. I feel like the benefit of all expenses paid treatment far outweighs the risks of being on a reality tv show.
      As for teaching girls how to have eating disorders, I’m sure it’s true. Shows like “Starving Secrets” and “Intervention” are very triggering. However, I don’t think they can cause problems where there were none before. Also, I would point out that the “best” place to learn the tricks of the trade would be in treatment. I think this show helps more than it hurts.
      I’m currently in very solid recovery, and I am so grateful for the three months I spent in residential treatment. Not everyone can afford that; I was very lucky. To the best of my knowledge, Melissa is also doing well. She is a sweet, beautiful, smart, and funny girl, and she will finally have a chance to showcase that.