Monday, 9 January 2012

'Dying to be Thin' - Why Awareness-Raising is a Double -Edged Sword

I’m not ashamed to admit it, Blog readers, there was a small, illogical part of me what was filled with irrational hope when I saw that ITV1 was screening a programme called ‘Dying to be Thin’ last week. Aired at 7.30pm, it’s a rare thing for the televisual equivalent of the Sun Newspaper to deign to ping something about such a sensitive issue out to the masses during prime time. It had the potential to be a gigantic leap forward in awareness raising.

Of course there was another, more logical part of my mind which was only too aware that in terms of emotional evolution, ITV1 is about 50 years behind every other channel. There was every chance that this could be a bucket-load of sensationalist old crap. Unfortunately, this part of my mind proved right.

The half hour show focussed on a handful of female, teenage, and severely underweight sufferers of anorexia nervosa, wheeling out time-old clichés, such as the sufferer standing in front of a mirror to reveal that – shock, horror! – she believes she is fat! They also conducted a ‘cutting edge’ (read: already used about a gazillion times during programmes on the much more progressive channel 4 and BBC3) experiment, which involved photographing young girls in close-fitting garb, showing them a full size image of themselves, and 4 additional ones made both larger and smaller than they are in reality, and asking them which one they prefer. “These girls are OBSESSED with body image” the presenter cried, in apparent disbelief – Of course they are – Show me anyone who wouldn’t feel a bit body conscious and, frankly, weirded out by being filmed in this bizarre hall of mirrors.

The sole redeeming feature was a 10 second VT of the magnificent Jo Swinson MP, talking sense.

As I heaved a huge sigh of disappointment, switched off the television and dragged myself into the kitchen to make a lovely soothing cup of tea, I was only mildly irritated. Then my phone rang.

“What did you think?” my friend asked.
“Load of clap trap”. I replied.
“Yes, but it’s a step in the right direction. On ITV1! At Prime Time! And most people don’t know as much about eating disorders as you do – For most people it will have taught them something”.

Which got me thinking – Was that programme ‘better than nothing’? And do all the people who work tirelessly to put out information which might genuinely give someone an understanding of eating disorders deserve something more than ‘better than nothing’?

It would be remiss of me to blame ITV1 entirely. This programme was the epitome of the tendency by some sectors of the media to turn serious mental health issues into light entertainment. Time after time organisations like Body Gossip and Men Get Eating Disorders Too have metaphorical doors slammed in our disillusioned faces by the popular press , as we present to them our well-reasoned, well-researched and suitably complex angles on the body image debate and are told “unless you can supply before-and-after-pictures of some case study we can exploit, or can find someone a little bit famous to say it instead, then bugger off”.

It’s little wonder, then, that most people’s understanding of eating disorders is at best rudimentary. The amount of cab drivers who have tried to give me their ‘informed wisdom’ on the topic, which essentially amounts to “that’s when birds think they’re fat, but they’re not, innit? Tell them men like something to grab hold of”. Thank you, for that.

So, the purposes of this blog are two-fold. Firstly, I’m going to share with you the complaint letter I wrote to ITV1, expressing in detail my concerns about their silly but dangerous programme. I hope you will be inspired to write to them too, remembering that we, the public, can occasionally wield our power for good.

The second is to thank all the media type folk I know who have genuine intentions to put something informative, helpful, respectful and complex about eating disorders right smack into the eye of the public. Amongst those are: Cosmopolitan Magazine, BBC London, BBC 5 Live, Heart Radio and last but not least, Mr Body Confidence himself; Gok Wan and all who sail in him.

Thank you, without you the world would still be thinking that the only eating disorder is anorexia, it’s only suffered by teenage girls, the only treatment option is being sectioned and institutionalised and that all of this occurs because teenage girls want to be thin and sexy.

And that’s why even the name of the show was an epic fail. Those girls weren’t ‘Dying to be Thin’ – They were dying trying to deal with something deep in the recesses of their troubled minds, something that could only be expressed by denying themselves food. They were dying in the midst of an obsession with deprivation. They were dying because of something unique and personal to them – Because there are many different ways to have an eating disorder, but very rarely does it arise solely out of a desire to be ‘thin’.

Complaint Email to ITV1
To Whom it May Concern

I am writing to make a formal complaint regarding your programme 'Dying to be Thin', which was screened at 7.30pm on ITV1 on Thursday 5th January 2012.

As someone who works for a charity campaign dealing with body image issues and eating disorders, you can imagine how pleased I was that awareness of these topics was apparently being raised on a prime time slot. However, upon watching the programme, I found that not only did it perpetuate some potentially damaging myths surrounding eating disorders, but that it used information and research which is about 10 years out of date. I also found the overall tone of the programme to be lazy and sensationalist.

Having expressed my concerns on Twitter, I was immediately bombarded with similar opinions from present and former eating disorder sufferers, as well as professionals in the field. Here is a summary both my concerns, and those which were presented to be on Twitter:

1. Your programme focussed only on teenage girls, with no acknowledgement made of the fact that eating disorders can affect both genders and all ages.

2. Your programme mentioned 'bulimia' in the same sentence as 'anorexia' on several occasions e.g. "anorexia and bulimia are on the rise". Bulimia is an entirely separate and different illness from anorexia, and bulimia sufferers will exhibit vastly different symptoms, not least usually being within a technically 'normal' BMI range.

3. You also completely failed to mention EDNOS, or 'eating disorder not otherwise specified', which is the commonest diagnosis of eating disorder in the UK.

4. Your programme perpetuated the sensationalist tendencies of the media to focus on severely underweight case studies, for 'visual' purposes. Although you did not mention weight or BMI (well done), it was clear that the patients used were very underweight. This dangerously suggests a patient can only be anorexic if they are 5 stone or thereabouts. Anorexia is a mental illness, it is the state of the mind which characterises the condition, not of the body.

5. Your programme focussed on an anorexic who saw a 'fat person' when they looked in the mirror, the implication being that this is common amongst eating disorder sufferers. In fact, the latest research suggests that this is a myth - Most anorexics know how thin they are, they simply do not consider this to be thin enough. Your failure to mention the same could delay diagnosis in several cases.

6. Your programme disregarded recent research undertaken by the University of West England, as well as other organisations. The statistics you used, as well as the general tone of the programme, appeared to be very out of date.

7. Your programme did not give any advice for, or hope to, carers. At the end of the programme, you gave the B-eat helpline. B-eat are a support organisation primarily for sufferers. The millions of concerned parents who would have tuned in for further information were not given a support helpline to call (such as SEED) and would have been left with a very negative and depressing message.

8. Although your programme mentioned the Phoenix Centre in Cambridge, no information was given about alternative treatments and therapies and where to find information about them.

9. The experiment conducted on young girls - showing them pictures of themselves both larger and smaller than they are and then asking them to pick a favourite - is not only ridiculous (show me anyone who wouldn't be body confident when photographed in a tight fitting outfit, shown full size pictures of themselves and then asked questions about it) but has also been used several times before in programmes on Channel 4 and BBC3.

In conclusion, I, and many others, believe that ITV1 missed what could have been an exciting opportunity to raise genuine awareness, instead churning out a lazy programme which, if anything, has set back the course of eating disorder awareness-raising.

I look forward to your response.


Natasha Devon


  1. I love this is what you do because it is like I have a thought, and you are the person who makes it real and come true.
    You are amazing Natasha <3

  2. I don't usually swear but F**KING RIGHT!!! Thank god for people and organizations like you is all I can say x