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.