Saturday, 7 February 2009

Tune in at 8:00 for an eating disorder

It seems like every other week, some TV celebrity decides to unmask the dangerous world of dieting by herself embarking on a gruelling journey towards the perfect figure. This week, it was a rerun of Louise Redknapp’s “The Truth About Size Zero” feature shot almost two years ago. The TV presenter, who was voted FHM’s Sexiest Woman of the Decade, and is usually a UK size eight (US size four), severely restricts her calories and undergoes punishing workouts for a month in order to fit into a US size zero dress. She also visits celebrity friends who have suffered eating disorders, along with some young women at the Rhodes Farm Clinic for eating disorders in North London, and they all share with her their struggle to develop a healthy relationship with their bodies and with food.

The formula is pretty much the same as all the others: Louise eats a couple blades of grass and an egg a day, exercises herself into a state of constant lethargy and nausea, her weight drops dangerously low, she is warned by doctors to stop but continues anyway, and at the end, she fits into the size zero dress and then goes out with her friends to get sloshed.

Throughout, she complains about how hungry she is, is consumed with guilt that she is constantly snapping at her husband and young son, and keeps reminding us that she feels awful and that the whole thing sucks. But what is the ultimate lesson? She never stops, even when she starts to have bouts of vomiting, she loses the weight, and she fits into the dress. And even though we’re told she’s dangerously thin and given the whole “please don’t try this at home” spiel, frankly, she looks great and not at all emaciated. So, what we have just been provided with is a living model of how to successfully starve oneself into a size zero dress in 30 days. Presumably, this was not the aim of the piece.

I say ‘presumably’ because I’m not quite sure of the intentions of the whole trend. I don’t want to malign poor Louise and question her own motives: perhaps she really is concerned about all the young, confused, starving women out there. And she’s certainly not the only one to undertake such an ‘experiment’. We’ve had Alesha Dixon with her “look, no airbrushing!” special, Natalie Cassidy trying every diet under the sun for our viewing pleasure, and it seems like Dawn Porter is always somewhere or other eating or doing something bizarre to lose weight. But I have to wonder whether these shows and their presenters aren’t doing the same thing they’re accusing the rest of the media and the fashion world of doing: capitalizing on our obsession with weight and our bodies in order to capture an audience.

First of all, where is the real sense of experimentation? We know that if you greatly restrict calories far beneath your basal metabolic rate (what your body would need to function if you were to keep perfectly still all day), you will lose weight rapidly. Louise’s programme did mention that you lose large amounts of muscle as a part of this, which is undesirable, but the aesthetic result – her body – doesn’t show this to be a bad thing. So what we expect to happen does happen: she loses weight and feels somewhat sick. But she carries on, and at the end, she’s 15 pounds lighter. And – and there’s no way to say this delicately – they don’t die, these presenters. They don’t even almost die or even have to take a sick day. There are no tufts of hair on the bathroom floor or gum disease or heart failure. If they were to carry on this way for a little longer, some of these things would likely start to manifest. But the fact is, they don’t.

So all we get to do is watch these people lose weight, which I think some of them secretly want to do anyway, (experiment and public service my arse), and then those among us who have spent the last six weeks wondering how we’re going to shift that holiday weight – or worse, those twelve and thirteen year olds out there who are smack dab on the verge of eating disorders – now have added and proven ammunition.

Frankly, I call bullshit, and I’m over it. I call bullshit on the truth-seeking, public education intent of these shows, and I challenge the TV networks, here in the UK and elsewhere, to make the real sacrifice, strip away the glamour and the voyeurism factor, and make a genuine effort to help solve this problem.


  1. Came over here from Shapely Prose (I'm thegirlfrommarz over there, by the way - hi!) and really enjoyed this piece. I think you're absolutely right that all these "the terrible cost of being a size zero" pieces are just another way to explore our obsession with the female body and control over it.

  2. Hi, the girlfrommarz. Thanks for visiting! Maybe it's because the year is still pretty new, but it seems like I'm being assaulted with bad body image messages everywhere I turn. Expect at least another rant or two.:)

  3. Another reader from Shapely Prose (I'm a lurker, though). I also loved this piece, mostly because it's so personally spot on for me. I'm a recovering anorexic, and I can personally say that these television shows? Are like the best porn in the world for us. I used to watch them obsessively (even tape them and re-watch them later) and mimic them, because (you’re right) they were visual evidence that if she could do it, so could I. The "don’t try this at home" is more for legal culpability reasons I think, because God knows the rest of their message overwhelms it completely. Bullshit, indeed.

  4. Hey there! I'm so glad you stopped by to read and comment. I wish more people like you could somehow make it known to producers of these kinds of shows how enabling and potentially damaging they are. Congratulations on being in recovery.


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