Tracey Gold's Starving Secrets: Is It Helping or Hurting?

BlogHer Original Post

Recently I watched the first two episodes of Lifetime's new eating disorder reality show (yes, I really typed that) starring Tracey Gold called Starving Secrets. It's a subject I keep coming back to despite the ickiness of it, because only 30-40% of anorexics ever fully recover, and I did. I understand how hard it is to break the cycle. It's really important for that those of us who have done so talk about it, just so those still suffering know it is possible. And so, the show.

Tracey Gold

Photo Credit: Danny Feld from Lifetime

I really do want to like this show. I DVRed it but it took about a week before I watched the first episode. I was worried it would be like Dr. Phil, though I had high hopes because of the presence of former anorexic Tracey Gold.

After I tweeted about watching the show, I heard from Michelle Leath of unlockyourpossibility.com and michelleleath.com (her new bulimia blog), who is a recovered bulimic and a Certified Food Psychology Coach and life coach specializing in helping women create a healthy relationship with food and life.

I was eager to get another recovered woman's perspective. She had this to say (extended quote used with permission):

Although some may disagree with me, what I take issue with is not the exposure or the depiction of these women engaged in their (not so) private struggles. I actually felt a great deal of compassion for them, and I think its valuable for others to witness the pain and suffering that come with bulimia and anorexia. What really turned my stomach was the way these women were treated once they got into treatment!

Could there BE a more powerful reinforcement of the “There’s Something Wrong With You” message? All of the focus was on the idea that their behavior was bad, trying force them to stop, weighing and measuring and fat calipering them like animals.

Granted we didn’t see every therapy session, but did anyone ever stop to ask these women what their hopes and dreams were? Did anyone think to get curious about what these eating issues might be trying to tell them? To observe and question without judgment, rather than just forcefully split off the coping habit or prevent them from using it by placing them under constant supervision and scrutiny? Were they trying to teach them "willpower"?

This is what was true for me: I found that many of the aspects of traditional therapy failed to help me (sometimes worsened my habits, actually!) What you resist persists. When I accepted my eating problem rather than fought with it, when I was able to embrace it as a gift intended to free my spirit, I didn’t need any willpower. There was nothing to fight.

At the end of the episode, it appeared that both women had successfully completed treatment and were (finally) on their way to recovery. (Note, it was announced that both of these women had been in treatment numerous times.) In my opinion, there was something vital missing from the way they were "treated," and I’ll be curious to see how long their recovery lasts.

I recognized the behaviors of the anorexics more than the bulimics, though along my continuum of recovery from anorexia I became bulimic, though not severely bulimic, for a few years. I remember taking one bite of food and throwing the entire rest of the container away. I remember hoarding unopened food containers. I remember talking long walks or exercising excessively every time I ate. I remember not being able to focus at all unless I knew what I would be eating and when I would be exercising that day. I remember all of it.

On the bulimic side, I remember the anxiety behind keeping the food down as I taught myself not to puke after eating a big meal.

The biggest thing I've taken away from the show so far is gratitude that I didn't have a spouse or kids when I was going through my disorder. I appreciate the show shedding light on how much time people spend on their eating disorders -- hours and hours on exercise or eating rituals or finding a good place to purge. How connected the eating disorders are to the concept of punishing yourself. How scary it is to ignore the rules you have made for yourself about what and when you're allowed to eat.

The show is clearly a lightning rod. The comments on Lifetime's page are passionately positive and negative, as well as pleas for help:

hilly0013 2 days ago

i just watched 2 episodes and could totally relate to stuff in every girls' situation. I've tried to get help but I don't have insurance anymore...and when I did, they would tell me that I wasn't sick enough. But, I've been struggling off and on for over 15 years ...

gypsy713 19 hours ago

There are sick people who get so triggered by this type of thing and if you know anything about an eating disorder you know they can't just not watch it. If you are wanting to help sick people I think that is great, use this money to start a foundation or something else, but this show is harmful ...

As I watched the second show last night, I tried to decide if televising these womens' habits and attempts at recovery was helpful or exploitative. In my head, I've created subgenres of reality television -- there are documentary-like shows that take a look at an industry or practice (I would put Dirty Jobs in this category and maybe Deadliest Catch), and there are shows like The Bachelor and Keeping Up with the Kardashians that manufacture drama when there isn't enough -- these shows don't seem very realistic to me, which is why people love them -- they're an escape. I tried to decide if Starving Secrets fits in the first category or the second. Is it a documentary or is it generating drama?

I finally decided you don't need to generate drama when it comes to eating disorders, so I put it in the first category. The potential for ridiculousness comes from Tracey herself -- she's not a doctor, so how much is she going to insert herself into the process of intervention and recovery? How will her presence impact the show?

I'm fascinated most by Tracey. Not just because she appears to be another of the 30-40% of the recovered, but because her demeanor changes so completely as she moves from teleprompter-reading TV-show host to interacting with the women (they've all been women so far) who are featured. Sometimes she seems genuinely confused (which is surprising to me), sometimes she seems on the brink of tears, and usually she is the only person on the entire show who seems to be talking to the women as if they are actual people and not patients.

I agree with Michelle that the doctors and staff in the treatment centers are the most disturbing to me. I never sought formal medical treatment for my eating disorder, though I have seen five or six therapists and psychologists since I began recovery who have helped or not helped me along the continuum to recovery. (It wasn't a straight line for me, and the entire process took about ten years.) I've also been written to by a lot of anorexics and bulimics who lament that formal treatment hasn't helped them for this very reason.

I think we're missing a lot here. As Michelle points out, we're shown a lot of tough love, calipering and meal plans. That treats the physical side of the disorder. But when I interviewed Dr. Bermudez of the Eating Disorder Recovery Center for BlogHer, he pointed out that eating disorders are biopsychosocial illnesses:

According to Dr. Bermudez, roughly 2/3 of patients with eating disorders at the time they are diagnosed are also diagnosed with psychiatric comorbidity (they are also diagnosed with another mental illness at the same time). Mood disorders are the most common (depression and anxiety).

I didn't see a lot of treatment going on for the mental illness piece of the eating disorder other than just telling the patient she was doing it wrong. I didn't see much compassion, either. I know I didn't see most of their sessions, but showing just the parts where therapists were telling the patients they were being ridiculous isn't helpful in the fight to convince society that you can't shame a person out of an eating disorder.

Tracey was closer when she said to anorexic Lisa, "I never believe an anorexic when she says she's not hungry. You're starving." Her voice cracked on the "starving." And she said that with compassion, not dismissal.

Tracey is often the only compassionate person on the show -- probably because she's been through it. I understand it's very hard for someone who's never suffered a mental illness to understand what it feels like to suffer a mental illness. But I've talked to both Dr. Bermudez and Stephanie Zerwas, the associate research director of UNC's Eating Disorders Program, and I heard a lot more compassion and depth of understanding about the mindset of an anorexic or bulimic from them than I did from the doctors on the show, and I talked to both of them for about twenty minutes each -- no longer than Starving Secrets' airtime. Stephanie said something I really identified with:

"We like to think weight management is a mathematical equation -- calories in versus calories out -- but everyone's body processes food a little bit differently and some people a lot differently. Accepting your own body type is an important part of the recovery process for a woman with an eating disorder. "

Full recovery takes two parts: First off, you have to stop starving or puking or binging or whatever unhealthy physical activity you are doing -- but the second -- and I think even more important part of recovery -- is overcoming the rules and the anorexia voice so often mentioned by eating disorder patients. At this point, I could be physically starving due to famine or imprisonment and not be anorexic. Conversely, I was physically at a healthy weight for ten years but I still had the anorexia voice -- and thus was not fully recovered. Full recovery takes being able to go through life without that voice, and I don't see these shows focusing on helping these women with their ED voices. I'd like to see more of that. That -- I believe -- is what eating disorder sufferers sitting at home watching the show and their families and friends desperately need to see and hear -- the moment at which a person accepts letting go of the rules she or he has created inside that spur the behavior.

I'll be watching to see if Tracey and team show us that.

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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