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Is there appetite for eating disorders sitcom?

By Neil Osterweil
Medpage Today Senior Associate Editor




Eating disorders: Too taboo for TV comedy?
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Entertainment (general)

NEW YORK (MedPage Today) -- Take 1: the FX network's new comedy series "Starved" is an audacious but ultimately fond and respectful look at Americans' obsessions with eating, dieting, and body image.

Take 2: "Starved" is a tasteless, exploitive travesty that mocks people with serious, life-threatening eating disorders.

Even before the show's debut (tonight at 10 pm ET), critical opinions on Starved have been all over the map.

" 'Starved' just might be the most repulsive show to hit the airwaves this year," wrote the Boston Herald's TV critic, while his crosstown rival at the Boston Globe called the program both "offensive" and "sick," but also "funny, poignant, and culturally relevant."

The New York Times' opinion came down squarely in the middle, saying that "it's not quite funny enough."

FX, a network that is building a reputation on edgy programs, has this to say about tonight's pilot episode:

"Four New Yorkers -- Sam, Billie, Adam and Dan -- struggle with various eating disorders and lean on each other for support. The friends attend Belttighteners, a radical support group that takes an unconventional, harsh approach to recovery. To Billie's horror, Sam secretly tries to mold his date into a woman from a sultry TV commercial. Adam continues to shake down deliverymen for their food and Dan struggles with his decision for gastric bypass surgery."

Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has previewed the pilot, and gives it two thumbs way, way down. Grefe said that watching a program that spoofs people with eating disorders is like watching a comedy set on a cancer ward.

"I can't imagine doing this same thing with leukemia or any other serious, potentially life-threatening illness," Grefe said in an interview. "We know of the millions of people affected in this country by eating disorders. Families are losing their homes and depleting their life savings and their retirement accounts to pay for treatment because insurance rarely pays for treatment as it's necessary. So I don't see anything funny about this."

Grefe, whose organization has called for a boycott of "Starved," says that portraying people with anorexia and bulimia as buffoonish characters trivializes the diseases and makes serious disorders sound like lifestyle choices.

A psychiatrist who sees firsthand how eating disorders can disrupt lives agrees.

"I guess the question is how much does this program glamorize these very serious disorders, make them appear to be appealing disorders where in fact they're not at all. People with eating disorders are desperate and unhappy and often not functioning very well, and there's nothing glamorous about it." said Dr. Walter H. Kaye, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh's Western Psychiatric Institute, in an interview.

"Starved" creator and star Eric Schaeffer, who says that he has been fighting food addictions for 22 years, told CNN that "laughter is the best medicine. I know from my recovery in all areas of addiction that humor is a tremendously, tremendously important antidote to recovery."

But Sandra Fischbein, a psychotherapist who counsels patients with eating disorders and is herself a recovered bulimic tells CNN that "Starved" is "trivializing behavior that ends up killing people in this country and all over the world."

Making light of the dark is an old tradition in entertainment. Even Shakespeare got into the act in "Romeo and Juliet," when he had the mortally wounded Mercutio uttering "ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man," as his life ebbs away.

But having a laugh at someone else's expense is an equally ancient if sometimes cruel custom.

"In the vulgar shows of our own times we find the lower instincts taking the upper hand," wrote psychiatrist Dr. Boris Sidis in his 1913 treatise The Psychology of Laughter. Noting that audiences of his day would laugh uproariously at slapstick violence on stage, he wrote that "the pain is regarded by the audience as slight and insignificant, although the abused person may regard the matter in a very different light. In fact, the more important the insignificant matter is considered by the person the more ridiculous the whole performance appears."

Today we laugh at the bluster and bombast of a Paulie Walnuts on "The Sopranos" while we cringe at his brutality and ruthlessness, and we chuckle at the mordant wit of the dysfunctional family of funeral directors on "Six Feet Under" as they pretty-up corpses for public display before burial. Both "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" air on HBO, which like CNN are owned by Time Warner.

So are psychiatrists and advocates for people with eating disorders taking themselves too seriously? Maybe, but they're not the first to find the content of a TV series objectionable.

Italian-American groups, for example, have been vocal in their opposition to the unflattering portrayals of Tony and Carmela Soprano and other people of Italian heritage, "At least being Italian won't kill you," Grefe says.

According to the NEDA, nearly 10 million American women suffer from anorexia or bulimia as do one million men, and another 25 million people suffer from some type of binge-eating disorder.

Part of the pathology of eating disorders is driven by societal pressures. Television simultaneously satirizes the desire to be thin - as it does in "Starved," and Kirstie Alley's Showtime "mock-documentary" "Fat Actress" -- and serves up heapin' helpins' of rail-thin eye-candy in the forms of the sleek, flab-free bodies on Fox's "The OC" and ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

"The media definitely has an influence on people with eating disorders," says Dr. Thomas Weigel, a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who also treats patients with eating disorders at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

"There was a study on Fiji; before TV it was actually valued to be somewhat overweight or obese, and after they got TV, a couple of years later people started to develop eating disorders," Weigel says

But Weigel also notes that there can be an upside to programs such as "Starved," or at least to the controversy surrounding it.

"With the recent Terry Schiavo case, we got a lot of good press about eating disorders," he says, "in that people started to pay attention to the idea that someone with an eating disorder could die from it, that it was an important illness, and I think something like that actually helped awareness of eating disorders."

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