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Like most women, I have plenty of experience of ‘dieting’. However, I’ve never gone as far as starving myself to try to achieve my ideal body weight. Last night’s ‘Tonight with Trevor McDonald’ was an attempt to show us what it’s like to be a childhood anorexic. We’re used to images of emaciated celebrities being held up in the media as the ‘norm’, but the sight of these pre-teen girls with huge heads and teeth – like famine victims – was truly shocking.
What was even more shocking though, was the nasty, sensationalist tone this programme took, and the complete lack of insight or understanding it actually gave us into these tragic young lives.
The programme was filmed at a clinic in London called Rhodes Farm – and yes, the place is as wholesome as it sounds. Set in a beautiful, rambling house amid lovely gardens, Rhodes Farm Clinic is a residential home for young anorexic children between the ages of 8 and 18. We looked at a few different case studies, but focussed mainly on the story of Lisa, a fourteen year old girl who weighed four and a half stone upon her admission to the clinic.
Lisa was very difficult to look at. Her bony, painfully drawn body was a truly heartbreaking sight. Her nose appeared to be blue, and her skin looked like white paper, stretched over her skeleton. Doctors had predicted that without proper care, she would be unlikely to live for more than two months. At this point, the viewer was of course desperate to know how this whole sad situation had arisen. What could possibly have driven a happy, attractive young girl to these horrendous lengths? What had triggered it? What was her own insight into her condition? These questions were never asked.
Instead, we were continually invited to enjoy the freakshow – ‘feeding time at the anorexia clinic’. As part of their therapy, the girls (and boys) are required to eat three proper meals each day – something they all find very difficult. Lisa hated eating so much that she sat like an old woman, hunched up and shaking with fear at the dinner table. This made for a very upsetting sight and really, one glimpse of it was all we needed to see. But the programme makers were determined to use this mealtime drama as a shock tactic.
When Lisa failed to eat her meal within the allowed twenty minutes, she was made to eat a ‘punishment’ high-fat snack – a cheese sandwich. Possibly the lowest point of this lurid film was before the advert break, when Trevor’s voice invited us to come back after the break to see Lisa battle her worst fears. The use of this young girl’s pain and suffering to provide suspense and entertainment was frankly nauseating.
Lisa did keep a ‘video diary’, which made for interesting viewing. But there was virtually no context to put it in. The film gave no insight whatsoever into the children’s daily routine in the clinic, it just focussed on the most extreme and distressing images it could find.
There was an interview with the Dr Dawson, who ran the clinic - a woman who had given up her own family home to provide this caring environment. This interview was clearly heavily edited however, and again focussed on the bizarre and the extreme, to the exclusion of any balanced insight.
The Rhodes Farm website makes clear – in quite some detail – what the children’s routine consists of, and it’s much like a normal boarding school. Classes, mealtimes, sport, music and art all feature, alongside weekly counselling and family therapy sessions. This was completely omitted from the film however, and we were left with the idea that Rhodes Farm is some kind of glamourous prison where skeletal young girls are force-fed cheese sandwiches.
Lisa’s parents were asked on film about their daughters eating habits, and they reluctantly talked about this. They were not asked why Lisa had developed this disorder though, or what kind of effect it had had on family life. Again, the thrust of the questioning was to draw out shocking facts about Lisa – who to all intents and purposes was treated like a zoo animal by this programme.
The film had a positive ending – Lisa did put on weight at Rhodes Farm, and looked virtually unrecognisable by the end of filming. She still had a completely warped self-image though, and the reasons for this were never once explored. The fact that she had been given weekly counselling was also ignored – the viewer was led to believe the daily ritual of force-feeding was pretty much all the clinic was doing for these young people.
If I was Dr Dawson I would feel disgusted at the sensationalist, titillating slant this film put on her clearly fantastic work in the field of childhood anorexia. And I hope that one day, Lisa will be strong enough to realise that her right to privacy is as important as her right to a healthy body.
The Tonight programme keeps on churning out ‘lowest common denominator’ tabloid TV in the name of investigative journalism. All concerned should be ashamed.
An exceptional review! I didn't see this progamme myself, but I personally hate the sensationalist angles used when documenting this kind of subject. It's disgusting. The trouble, most of the public lap up these kind of programmes and they'd get bored and switch off if every moment wasn't shock, shock, shock - it's sad but true.
SweetTooth93 02.06.2008 21:32
A brilliant review. I never saw this programme, however I've been in hospital the past few months batteling with anorexia, and it is in no way glamerous, it is a living nightmare! I hate programmes that make jokes out of Eating disorders, and think its so easy to recover xx