TV Movies About Eating Disorders


TV Movies About Eating Disorders
By Claudia Eve Beauchesne
Between 1981 and 2003, at least a dozen cookie-cutter movies and afterschool specials about eating disorders were broadcast on North American
television. Nearly all of those films had titles combining the words
“Dying,” “Perfect” and “Body” (Little Miss Perfect, Perfect Body, Dying
to be Perfect, etc.) or including the word “Secret” (Kate’s Secret, The
Secret Life of Mary Margaret, A Secret Between Friends, etc.) Save for a
few exceptions, they all followed the same recipe:
A white, upper-middle-class teenage girl with mommy issues and a name
that ends in a “y” sound (Casey, Debbie, Nancy, Lexi, etc.) secretly begins
to “scarf and barf,” or stops eating altogether, in an effort to excel at a
performing art or competitive sport, to emulate a popular new friend, or
to regain a sense of control after a move or her parents’ divorce. A few
dramatic incidents later—often messy binges involving chocolate icing,
desperate midnight workouts and/or laxative theft—her friends and family
start to tell her that she looks too thin, yet fail to notice that she now also
sports ghoulish purple eye shadow and beige lipstick.
Eventually, our heroine faints in public and wakes up in the hospital, her
mother asks herself out loud, “What did I do wrong? What did I miss?!”
and a doctor gives the worried parents a complete rundown of the possible
causes and effects of eating disorders. After a failed attempt to run away
from the hospital, our heroine learns that her enabler friend or sassy hospital
roommate has died of heart failure or committed suicide. The news sends
her on a downward spiral until she hits rock bottom and resolves to get
better. Cue the tearful reconciliation with mom.
Even though those TV movies are technically dramas, many borrow tricks
from the horror genre: sensationalist taglines about a “killer epidemic,”
close ups of food accompanied by ominous music, distorted images
signaling body dysmorphia or dizziness, and slow-motion bathroom runs.
As in horror movies, the focus is on psychotic behaviors that are probably
based on real cases but are also clearly played for effect. If the intention
is to scare viewers into taking eating disorders seriously, more often than
not, the results are unintentionally funny. As new information emerged,
the portrayals of eating disorder sufferers in TV movies became more
nuanced—and much less entertaining. Let’s consider two deliciously hamfisted early efforts.
The Best Little Girl in the World (1981) was
the first TV movie ever made about eating
disorders. Produced by Aaron Spelling, it
stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Casey, a
“perfect” teenager for whom it’s essential
that her clothes be color-coordinated and
evenly-spaced in her closet. Despite the
decent acting (including cameos by Helen
Hunt and Ally Sheedy), slick production
values, and Joni Mitchell songs on the
soundtrack, the film is laughable in
retrospect because it presents Casey’s
eating disorder as a direct reaction to
her unsatisfying home life. Parents not impressed that she just made the
cheerleading squad? Time to do some sit-ups! Rigid curfew? It’s never too
late to stick your fingers down your throat.
The movie reaches its fever pitch on New Year’s Eve, when Casey’s
hysterical father tries to force-feed her sliced bread with peanut butter
until she bites his hand and draws blood. At midnight, her sister walks into
the kitchen as “Auld Lang Syne” comes on the radio. “Happy New Year,
everybody,” she spits out sarcastically. “Happy New Year to my happy,
happy family.”
The CBS Schoolbreak Special Little Miss Perfect (1987) is so full of
hilarious food analogies, it’s hard to believe that the film’s creators weren’t
aware of its comedic value. Debbie’s weight-obsessed mother puts pressure
on her “Pumpkin” to lose weight, be popular and meet boys in the new
town where they just moved, so Debbie ends up driving the porcelain bus
whenever she gets lonely or disappointed. When mom expresses concern
because Debbie threw up and fainted at the mall, Debbie snaps back with
what can only be a double entendre: “Maybe I just ate something.” She
then proceeds to scarf down a massive amount of pretzel sticks from a bag
labeled “FED” before dashing to the bathroom in slow motion.
Like all TV bulimics, Debbie doesn’t just overeat, she literally stuffs her
face, frantically shoving sticky buns and handfuls of potato chips in her
mouth simultaneously as the music builds up to a crescendo (the episode
won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Direction and Composition).
In a cringe-inducing twist ending, Debbie’s mother shockingly reveals that
she was chubby as a teenager, before delivering the film’s final (and best)
line: “Honey, this is our problem and we’re going to lick it!”
Kate’s Secret (1986) veers away from the canon, starring Meredith
Baxter (the mother from Family Ties) as a bulimic California housewife whose best friend is her aerobics instructor. After fainting at the
wheel, Kate is sent to a treatment center where group therapy sessions
involve cathartic cries of “I stick my finger down my throat!” followed
by slow claps.
· The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) recounts the life of history’s most
famous anorexic, and is a perfect movie pick for a sick day. Let the
obvious lip-synching, unflattering period wigs and costumes, and melodramatic breakdowns entertain you while Carpenter’s soothing voice
and maudlin songs lull you into a restorative trance.
In The Secret Life of Mary Margaret (1992), a pre-Ally McBeal
Calista Flockhart narrates the twisted inner monologue of a teenage
model who throws up in jars that she keeps in her bedroom closet—not
only is she bulimic, but she’s also a puke hoarder! The docu-drama is
followed by a bizarre Public Service Announcement in which the real
Mary Margaret recites a generic message of support in a disturbing
monotone voice: “You. Are. Not. Alone.” she over-enunciates. “I. Urge.
You. To. Be. Brave.” Barf.

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