The story arc gone awry: Entertainment Tonight’s feature on eating disorders

Our daughter Natalie is in recovery from an eating disorder. It’s a disorder that comes with a stigma and provokes a prurient curiosity, especially in terms of its most stereotypical physical manifestation—the aberrantly thin body, which, by the way, is not a symptom of all eating disorders.

After wrestling for years with this pernicious beast, which has its complex origins in biology, emotional factors, and social influences, Natalie has arrived at a place of self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-love that enables her to envision a future for herself. She is determined never again to live that joyless existence when she was sometimes numb to emotion, sometimes crushed by titanic feelings. She is ready to share her story in the hope of helping some of the one in five women who struggle with this illness.

Which is why when asked to participate in an interview on the subject of eating disorders by Entertainment Tonight, she agreed. She was one of two former residents of a live-in treatment facility invited to share her story. Just a few things to keep in mind about story: It has an arc. Its purpose is to show the movement of character from stage to stage, to show change. Transformation.
The interviewer spent a couple of hours with Natalie and her friend, Madigan, who, because they are in the recovery stage, wanted to focus on that part of their story, which can be helpful, revelatory and inspiring. The illness stage is not any of those things, except in a bizarre and toxic way, offering a tutorial in disordered eating behaviors to those teetering at the eating disorder abyss or already lost in that darkness. During the hours spent with the interviewer, Natalie declined to talk about behaviors she practiced while ill.

When the show asked for “before” photos of them, that is, photos with their illness on display, Natalie declined this request as well. Instead she sent a photo of her graduation from the treatment facility, showing her happy and triumphant. She also sent a photo of herself as a participant in the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) walk to raise awareness and funds. Later, one of the show’s staff remarked on how well-adjusted and healthy Natalie and Madigan seemed. They seemed that way because they are. Apparently, recovery is not the part of the story that sells. ET went back to the treatment center to find another client to interview.

What eventually aired was a three-part series. In the first, stock images of skeletal women fill the screen to deliver the requisite shock. There’s more manufactured spectacle as ET host Rocsi Diaz describes the treatment center in the Malibu hills as a place of “luxury,” making it seem like a resort or spa. It’s spacious and comfortable, but not luxurious. A good, effective treatment center is hard to find. Regardless of the location of the facility, it’s expensive to treat eating disorders. It’s health-insurance hell. Ask my husband who has spent countless hours on the phone and online with insurance companies, health providers, and even attorneys. The tragedy is that insurance often cuts out before a client is ready to be discharged, sending her into a spiral of relapse, eventual readmission to a treatment facility, and another premature discharge when the insurance coverage is severed yet again.

Diaz interviews a sixteen-year-old client of the facility who describes her disordered behaviors, unwittingly providing eating-disordered viewers with new behaviors to emulate. In the second part of the series, Diaz reveals her own eating-disordered past, and for several minutes she and the sixteen-year-old compare notes on the behaviors they practiced—more fodder for those viewers struggling with their own eating disorders.

Finally, in the third part of the series, the several hours of video shot about recovery are reduced to mere seconds on screen. Of all the conversation recorded during the interview session, the show chose to highlight Natalie’s comment about her transition from anorexia to bulimia. So much for story arc. While the illness is certainly part of the narrative, overcoming the illness is what makes the story. Arriving on the other side of illness is what gives the story completion and the listener or viewer of the story a sense of satisfaction.

But what can you expect from a show that breathlessly heralds the Victoria’s Secret runway show, that delights in catching starlets without make-up, that assesses with a cold lens how long it takes for a celebrity to shed her post-pregnancy weight.

Even if this attempt at raising awareness of eating disorders didn’t go as Natalie had hoped, at least she has no regrets about how she conducted herself in the interview. She has learned a few things about the power of the editing room though.

For a long time, Natalie’s illness was a family secret. It was important that she have the time, space and privacy to work on recovery. With the ET segment, she has completely outed herself. I think there must be a certain liberation in that—claiming her self. Her life.

She’s tough and intelligent. She’s learned that life is full of obstacles, but that they can be overcome. She’s learned that that’s what makes the story, that the ending is transformative, and it can be beautiful.