LOS ANGELES, March 19, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Along with countless professionals and families dealing with the physical, emotional and financial consequences of eating disorders, I am deeply disturbed by the way your recent program, "Dying to Be Thin: Meet the Skinniest Women in America," had the unintended effect of glamorizing the deadliest of all mental illnesses. Rather than documenting the tragedy associated with eating disorders and providing encouragement to sufferers to seek help, you perpetuated myths about the disease and provided harmful information to millions. I believe this show did more harm than good. As a physician, you have a responsibility to improve your coverage of eating disorders in future shows.
"Dying to Be Thin," while tantalizing, serves to perpetuate one of the deadliest misconceptions about eating disorders. People with eating disorders are not necessarily "skinny" or "thin," and certainly not everyone who dies from an eating disorder is underweight. In fact, many people die at a very normal weight, especially if they have bulimia. You mentioned on your show that the "more acute cases" were the "thinner" women. That myth is also dangerous to disseminate. Those who weigh less than others are not necessarily "more acute" than others at a "healthy weight." That misconception has long created stigmas associated with eating disorder sufferers and has often led to under-treatment by physicians who think that because a woman is not thin, she is not as acute. Your focus on thinness did a grave disservice by failing to educate your audience scientifically about what eating disorders really look like.
In giving air time to the Pro-Ana movement, you referred to it as "a dangerous new trend that helps women be skinny at any cost." The Pro-Ana movement is not new. Pro-Ana (and Pro-Mia) sites have been around since the dawn of the Internet. Far from being "trendy," they are a very dangerous facet of an eating disorder underground that preys on the mentally ill. Had you consulted an eating disorders expert, you would never have offered your audience direct access to the websites and their images. Studies show that doing so causes harm. One study, on college-aged women (none of whom had eating disorders), discovered that after viewing pro-eating disorders websites, 84% reduced their calorie intake by more than 2,000 calories per week. Only 56% of the women realized they were eating less. Results of the study also indicated that the women exposed to the pro-eating disorders website had decreases in self-esteem and perceived attractiveness.
My days are spent in and out of federal courts battling insurance companies that deny benefits for seriously ill women and men who seek adequate treatment for their diseases – even though a federal law and many state laws mandate that insurers provide similar levels of treatment for mental illnesses as they provide for physical illnesses. Shows such as the one you aired trivialize this disease and undermine the progress well-respected groups such as the International Association for Eating Disorders Professionals, the Eating Disorders Coalition, the National Eating Disorders Association, and the Binge Eating Disorder Association have achieved. Still, getting the national media to take eating disorders seriously without parading dangerously thin women across the television screen is about as difficult as getting an insurance company to pay for a therapeutic length of stay at a residential treatment facility.
It is hard for me to believe that either you or your staff did any legitimate research about eating disorders before planning the programs. Were you aware that professionals in the eating disorder field were in touch with producers at your show in recent months offering the benefits of their expertise free of charge should you plan to air segments about eating disorders? Those calls and e-mails appear to have been ignored.
You owe it to your many viewers to correct the harm your recent program caused. First, please remove all material from your website and blog that mentions the Pro-Ana movement. Second, work with some of the many excellent professionals at reputable facilities around the country to plan follow up segments to properly educate your audience about how people can recover from eating disorders and lead productive and fulfilled lives not centered on food. You have an opportunity to teach millions across the country, including other physicians who might watch your show, the real skinny about eating disorders. I hope you will do the right thing.
About Lisa S. Kantor
Lisa S. Kantor, a Los Angeles lawyer and member of the Board of Directors of the Eating Disorders Coalition, is the country's premier legal advocate for patients with eating disorders who have been denied health insurance benefits for treatment. In 2011, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for her client in Harlick v. Blue Shield, creating one of the most influential decisions ever in mental health parity litigation and paving the way to making treatment and recovery for severe mental illnesses more attainable. For more information, go to www.kantorlaw.net.
SOURCE Lisa S. Kantor