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Louis Theroux: The failure of 'Talking to Anorexia'

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Louis Theroux begins with all the right intentions in his BBC 2 documentary, Talking to Anorexia.  He sets himself an ambitious target for a disease as complex and diverse as Anorexia Nervosa: to provide an insight into its causes, how it affects patients and their families, and to give ‘some understanding of a way out’.

In his trademark curious-yet-careful manner, Theroux certainly attempts to delve deep into the lives of those suffering from anorexia, prompting patients in St. Ann’s inpatient eating disorders ward with personal questions, in order to provide a truthful insight into what is a debilitating and potentially life-threatening mental illness.  And yet, it falls staggeringly short of its aims.

Within ten minutes of entering North London hospital St Ann’s Phoenix Wing, any promising insight into anorexia as a serious mental illness is overwhelmed by an obsession with the physical symptoms of the disease. In fact, the entire documentary quickly joins a long line of failed attempts to provide a truthful representation of anorexia.

You might be inclined to ask, how should I know anything about anorexia?  How should I, of all people, give myself the right to evaluate how successful Talking to Anorexia is as a documentary?

Well, having accessed specialised eating disorders services for the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa twice in my adolescence alone, I have years of understanding of eating disorders and their symptoms.  I, myself, am an example of how anorexia may manifest itself.  Anorexia is indiscriminate.  Anorexia is ruthless.  But anorexia is also possible to recover from.

Louis Theroux’s documentary certainly has its merits.  His respectably cautious and open-minded approach should be commended and credit too must be given for his refusal to take part in ‘anorexia’s games’, and his inclination to deliver some genuine consoling speeches on patients’ worth and potential beyond their illness.

However, his investigation of the illness perpetuates many common and harmful stereotypes, too often found in the representation of anorexia by documentaries and the media alike.

The documentary, which features predominantly white, female young adults in an emaciated physical state, fails in its aims to provide a truthful, accurate representation of Anorexia Nervosa, a disease which affects people of all genders, races, and religions.  Out of the four people it follows, one person is non-white and not a single male is represented.

For a disease where 25% of those showing signs of an eating disorder are male, the existence of eating disorders in the male community is completely ignored.  Where are the males with anorexia? Where are the black people with anorexia?  Where are the disabled people with anorexia?  Importantly, where are the patients with orthorexia, binge eating disorders, and the less recognised or unspecified eating disorders?

As for its aims on providing an insight in anorexia as a mental disorder, there is an uncomfortable focus on the physical symptoms of anorexia throughout the documentary.  Theroux immediately makes it clear that Anorexia Nervosa is a ‘mysterious mental disorder’ - a phrase that quite frankly unnecessarily romanticises the concept of mental disorder – yet he simply seems unable to draw his documentary away from a fixation with physical symptoms.

Lingering shots of emaciated limbs, downcast music accompanying before and after pictures, and detailed examination of weight charts draws yet another parallel with the media’s misconception that anorexia is a ‘size zero’ disease, the result of societal pressure to lose weight.

Within the documentary, 27-year-old Jess desperately tries to dispel myths surrounding anorexia in society and in the media, yet one of the first images we see of her focuses on an elongated shot solely of her thighs beside Louis Theroux’s.  Jess stresses the disease is not attention-seeking, ‘not about being attractive’, but is a complex interaction of control, anxiety, and self-punishment, a mental illness whose physical symptoms do not define the seriousness. 

Her attempts fall on death ears.

Theroux seems unaware of the potential damage his documentary could be inflicting upon its audience.  It is established early on that anorexia is deceptive, with many of the patients at St Ann’s in denial of the seriousness of their disease.

Yet, the focus on only extremely severe cases of anorexia ignores that the seriousness of anorexia is not equated to the weight or appearance of the patient.  Imagine two people drowning: one is drowning in five feet of water whereas the other is drowning in ten feet of water.  Both people are drowning and both people are in dire need of help.

When someone struggling watches Theroux’s documentary, their predicament may seem inconsequential in comparison with the severe long-term patients at St. Ann’s.  With their eating disorder already telling them not to access treatment, we don’t need another voice problematising this, especially not someone as high-profile and popular as Theroux.

Louis Theroux is brave to take on a documentary on Anorexia Nervosa.  Perhaps he believes he’s championing the cause to raise awareness of the severity of the disease.  However, he is unaware of the fatal errors he makes in perpetuating misconceptions of anorexia.  Let’s leave the presentation of anorexia to those who know the illness: the professionals, the sufferers, and the survivors.

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