Friday, September 09, 2005

We Should Be Hungry For Better Television Programming

The decline of cable television programming spiraled further downward recently, with the premier of Starved on FX.

The network bills the 30-minute program as a sit-com.  Its storyline is built around three men and a woman who all struggle with an eating disorder.  The premise is that there is comedy in such subject matter.  However, it is hard to imagine laughter flowing from the more than 10 million women and one million men in the U.S. whose current struggles with anorexia or bulimia are no joke.  The additional 25 million Americans fighting a battle with binge eating disorder most likely do not view their collective struggle as a sit-com.

However, the joke seems to be playing out on our culture, as FX serves up a cast of characters with eating disorders in the latest blue-plate special to fill our appetites for something funny, anything funny, even if it marginalizes the real suffering that exists behind the jokes.

The estimated 40,000 Texas women between the ages of 15 and 49, who currently struggle with eating disorders, will tell you there is no joke in purging their meal before it gets digested.  They will tell you there is no joke in being admitted into an intensive care unit because their primary organs were denied the necessary protein to keep them functioning normally.  And, the parents or spouses of eating disorder victims will tell you it was not a laughing matter when they discovered their loved ones suddenly dead from cardiac arrest, only later to find out that anorexia or bulimia was the cause of death.

In fact, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, about 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females ages 15-24. This age group is the bull’s eye targeted by so many fashion magazines and retailers that project images of tall, extremely slim females whose physical frames contradict what medical examiners agree to be the appropriate healthy weight for women of such height.

As if the heat of summer and the pressure to look even slimmer in a two-piece swimsuit was not enough to push some women to the brink of physical disaster, FX makes light of the anxiety that prompts so many young people to avoid eating or to secretly throw-up what little food they consume – all for the sake of looking like the role model in the advertisement, or now because television programming validates such behavior.

For many young females – and a growing number of males – the recent return to school pulls the trigger on a mental and emotional struggle with food consumption and the need to look thinner, no matter how thin they may be already.  The mirror never reflects the reality, and in many cases the reality even escapes parents, friends, teachers and coaches.

Clothes provide the veil that covers the boney framework and the internal breakdown of the natural physical operation of the body.  Advertisements in August are more about clothes than about calculators or college-rule paper.  Parents would be wise to talk with their high school and college-age children about unrealistic expectations they may have of looking like the models in magazines and newspaper ads.  They should include in their conversations about academic performance encouraging comments about looking unique and beautiful just as they are.  Parents should be watchful of their youth who already may be thin, but who may be portraying a false sense of energy.

On the surface, the ones who are most swept up by the struggle with an eating disorder are those that seem most in control.  They are the leaders of the class, the cheerleaders, the top athletes, the ones voted most likely to achieve.  The stress of achievement and the fear of failure and rejection can be a devastating combination.  Parental or peer pressure plants the drive for success, but many times leaves no room for failure, at least in the mind of the patient.  The one thing people with eating disorders hold onto, as something within their control, is the consumption of food and control of weight.  It becomes obsessive and eventually weight control leads to a steady and slow starvation of the body.

While the lack of intake of food causes the body to burn muscle instead of fat, the female begins to experience an irregularity of her menstrual cycle.  Those who purge their food begin to experience tooth decay from the acidic flow of vomit that passes through the mouth.  The lack of protein causes the heart to atrophy and slow down to rates that are life threatening.

The beginning of the new school year already means the beginning of another mean season for those with eating disorders.  The fall season television programming of FX does no service to the very at-risk population it mocks.  The program, Starved, only perpetuates the negative stigma associated to those struggling with eating disorders.  

The irony would be for the FX program to trigger enough disgust in the public that we force  the insurance and medical communities to respond with the necessary concern, medical coverage and treatment that eating disorders warrant, yet still hunger for in Texas and throughout the country.  But first, let’s change the channel on Starved.