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Oprah Plans Reality Show on Eating Disorders

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Maggie Baumann, M.A.:Will this show help treat eating disorders ... or promote them?


Since I work in the eating disorder field, I try to stay on top of breaking news regarding the awareness, prevention and treatment of eating disorders.

It was recently announced by the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) -- a new cable TV channel set to launch January 1, 2011 -- that it will debut a number of health, home and relationship series, including "Inside Rehab" -- an eight-episode docu-series about the treatment of eating disorders.

The reality show will be set within an eating-disorder treatment facility, providing viewers with an inside peek into the lives of patients being treated for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. "Inside Rehab" will follow a group of patients as they undergo a 42-day recovery program.

We've seen shows that promote the "interventions" that get eating-disorder patients to treatment. This show goes one step further and will give real-life accounts of patients in treatment and how they navigate the very rough road of recovery. Eating-disorder experts suggest that full recovery from an eating disorder can take as long as seven years, so obviously the patients who'll be featured on "Inside Rehab" will be just starting their journeys toward health and recovery.

In a statement, OWN's chief creative officer, Lisa Erspamer, said, "'Inside Rehab' takes viewers into the world of eating disorders in a raw and transformative way. Whether you have issues with food or know someone who does, this series offers perspective, hope and the possibility to see food-based issues in a new light."

Maybe Oprah felt compelled to include this series in the OWN debut lineup in January because of the personal and public struggles she herself has had with weight issues for many years.

The Pros and Cons
As a therapist, I can see both sides of the coin when it comes to the benefits and detriments that a program like "Inside Rehab" could have on both the patients being treated and the viewers who tune in.

The upside (I assume) is that some very ill patients who may not otherwise have the funds will receive free treatment at their facility of choice, thanks to OWN. This could make a tremendous difference in the lives of the patients treated. In fact, it could save lives.

However, it's tough for patients in recovery at a treatment center to be under lights and cameras, to share the shame and destruction of their disorder and be vulnerable enough to open their lives under a public microscope. Recovery is a very private matter, and some of these patients could be harmed by the process of participating, through the negative exposure that could develop during filming or after the airdate.

Now let's look at the viewers of the program. "Inside Rehab" could provide an enormous amount of education and awareness about eating disorders, along with information on the ins and outs of how treatment works. I am sure this is the mission of the show's producers.

Yet the downside is, people with eating disorders often "feed off" other people with eating disorders. In other words, there's always competition among those with this disease to be the thinnest or best at it. The show could indeed trigger people to develop disordered eating or even eating disorders, if they are already vulnerable to this disease.

People Weigh In
One of the articles I came across as I researched "Inside Rehab" appeared online on April 29, 2010, at Entertainment Weekly. Many readers posted their personal views on the potentially controversial docu-series. Here are a few posts that I thought were noteworthy:

"Spike" said,"I think this is a great idea. People should know of the severity of eating disorders, and know it's not a silly indulgence to be skinny, or beautiful, but a full-on disease .... New facts would be nice; it's not about just beauty, not just about dancers, models and athletes. Let's do the research needed. Also, there should be an insider's point of view on issues like how insurance companies see this disease, what they cover and what they don't cover ...."

"Katie" said,"I don't think this is a good idea;eating disorders should be private, recovery especially for an anorectic [sic] .... Publicizing weight gain and having people watching and commenting can fuel an anorectic [sic] to stay at a low weight or drop even further. [Documentaries] cement the idea that the eating disorder is a [worthy] role, an identity they can don for sympathy and self-worth .... I do not think personal documentaries are helpful unless the individual has fully recovered. Seriously, this is a dangerous playground -- the human mind. Tread carefully. [Oprah] may not realize she is doing more trouble than intended."

What are your thoughts on airing "Inside Rehab"?

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