Wrapped in a sweater, scarf, black parka and winter boots, Rivka heads out the door of her Toronto home and starts walking. She swings her arms determinedly, walking nowhere in particular. She dons her hood, slips on gloves and continues walking. She walks and walks and walks some more. She makes a loop, returning home to lunch on egg whites.
Then she walks again.
Past restaurants, shops, through snow-covered streets. Past neighbors, strangers, shoppers and diners. She stops at home for an egg white dinner, and if she can summon the strength, walks again until bedtime. Over six hours of walking, in one day, Rivka has burned 1,500 calories. The next morning, she starts again.
For 12 years, the 28-year-old Canadian has obsessively counted calories, logged miles and maneuvered through a daily routine dictated entirely by her eating disorder. She’s pale and gaunt. Her sister describes her as “extremely fragile—she’s like an autumn leaf that you could just crumble. I feel like she could just disintegrate.”
Rivka is one of two women profiled in the pilot episode of Lifetime’s new reality series, “Starving Secrets with Tracey Gold.” The show, which premieres December 2, is the brainchild of host and executive producer Gold, the “Growing Pains” actress who publicly battled anorexia and exposed the details of her struggle in a 1992 People Magazine cover story.
“It is a passion project, obviously and it’s not glamorous,” Gold said during a phone interview from her Southern California home last week. “When I went into the project, it was treatment first and the show second—it wasn’t so we can show them on TV and exploit them. I think it’s a very realistic look at the longevity and the time it takes to really recover.”
As Gold has appeared on talk shows and in magazines in recent weeks, promoting “Starving Secrets,” reactions to the project have been mixed. Some East Bay eating disorder specialists have already expressed concerns that the graphic representations of symptoms and behaviors could be detrimental to vulnerable audiences.
“One of the things that I have learned in the world of eating disorders is that information can be used as a tool or a weapon,” said nutritionist Michele Vivas, sipping from a thermos between appointments at her busy Rockridge office. “There are going to be a certain number of people who watch that show and think, ‘My God, what a sad, unnecessary amount of energy spent on something so self harming.’ And there’s going to be a certain number of people watching saying, ‘Let me get a pen and piece of paper and write that down, because this is going to be my new manual.’”
“Starving Secrets” will explore a range of eating disorders, but most of the ten women profiled in the first six episodes are struggling with anorexia or bulimia. Anorexia, defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a “refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height” is also accompanied by an intense fear of weight gain, a distorted perception of one’s weight and, often for women, amenorrhea—the absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles.
“My personal struggle was with anorexia,” Gold said. “We have a lot of bulimics, which is a world I did not know a lot about.” People suffering with bulimia binge-eat episodically and often compensate for the excessive food intake by fasting; inducing vomiting; misusing laxatives, diuretics, enemas or other medications; or exercising excessively. Melissa, a 22-year-old New Jersey woman also profiled in the pilot episode, is seen vomiting into a toilet several times in the first few minutes of the show.
Vivas and other specialists worry that explicit accounts of these conditions could inadvertently trigger viewers. “There is kind of this well-documented competitiveness among people who struggle, particularly with anorexia,” Vivas said, citing a phenomenon she calls “compare and despair” in which sufferers assess their own conduct based on others’, striving to engage in the most extreme, self-destructive behaviors, like starvation. “If you hear someone was doing 800 calories and 1 hour of exercise a day, there may be a triggering event where someone goes, ‘Okay, I’m going to do 500 calories and 2 hours of exercise per day,’” she said.
Gold, however, is adamant that her show is not likely to stir up harmful habits. “I think if you’re on the road to an eating disorder, you can pick up a trigger anywhere,” she said. “I think you can look at the internet—you can Google anything, if you want to go down that path. There’s a multitude of things that will trigger you. If you’re looking to get better, a show like this can help you, without a doubt.”
Oakland psychologist and eating disorder specialist Jill Rodgers-Quaye is not convinced by Gold’s assertion. “My gut says there’s a difference between Googling anorexia and bulimia and getting some text on it, and watching an ongoing drama with all sorts of detail,” she said. “Intuitively, we think if we tell someone about a horrible experience, they’ll try to prevent that from happening to them. But there are lots of things in the world of science and medicine we’ve figured out that don’t make intuitive sense.”
Rodgers-Quaye said there hasn’t been conclusive research to demonstrate the benefits of public campaigns that offer explicit details on eating disorder symptoms and behaviors. In fact, she said doing so can elicit anorexia and bulimia in certain people who are pre-disposed to develop the diseases, either due to genetics, trauma or other ingrained factors.
“There is this belief in the field that you have to be very careful about giving very explicit information about symptoms, because some people are vulnerable,” she said. “If it’s presented in a somehow titillating way or dramatic way, it just seems like a tinderbox, and then there’s the match that sparks it.”
Elizabeth Scott, co-founder of Berkeley-based organization The Body Positive, which creates and delivers programs and presentations to kids and adults about body acceptance, agrees that revealing specific details about disorders can be triggering. “I don’t find it useful for survivors to tell their story if it includes any numbers, if it includes any methods, and if it includes anything sensational or any benefits,” she said. “That’s going to really shut down how much of a story you can tell. Everyone watching is taking notes to be more eating disordered.”
Gold acknowledges that revealing participants’ weights, caloric intakes and other details can elicit competitiveness in viewers vulnerable to eating disorders, but says television necessitates the numbers. “When you’re trying to show somebody suffering from an eating disorder, you have to show their behavior,” she said. “There are numbers mentioned in our show. Trying to portray a TV show, sometimes you have to do that. I agree it’s a slippery slope, but in trying to portray these women’s stories, sometimes you have to show it in a way that an audience not familiar with an eating disorder will understand.”
Though Oakland psychologist Lynn Tracy said she is skeptical of the “Starving Secrets’” reality format, she also said she hopes the show could help some viewers. “Maybe if it would reach an audience that would not normally have access to accurate information about eating disorders, it could be really positive,” she said. “I think so much is how the show is done—and if it’s done well, with accurate information and the ability to capture the complexities of different treatment options and causes.”
One complexity professionals hope “Starving Secrets” addresses is the variety of people afflicted with disordered eating, regardless of race, age, gender or weight. Though the first episodes do not include any men, according to Gold, the women profiled are extremely diverse, and few resemble the stereotypical representations of eating disorder sufferers the media often portrays.
“Our women range from 19 to 43,” she said. “We have a range of ethnicities—we have white Italian, Jewish orthodox, African American—from all walks of life. We wanted to stay away from Los Angeles as much as possible—we have Ohio, we have New Jersey, we have Toronto. So we have a lot of different areas we went to, and we have a range also of eating disorders.”
Rodgers-Quaye said emphasizing how eating disorders impact women of color is especially important. “I think that many African American and Latina women in particular don’t come in for treatment because they’re embarrassed because they have a white girls’ disease,” she said. “Their families don’t necessarily catch it as early because it doesn’t occur to them that this could be going on.”
Vivas said she’s seen a sharp increase in the number of African American and Latina patients in Kaiser’s Oakland teen and adolescent eating disorder program, where she works once a week. “We’ve done the statistics—it’s impacting Oakland,” she said. “My suspicion is that African American girls are not getting detected as rapidly. I think there really is this mentality that this really is a white-chick illness. And with a lot of our Latina population, what we’re seeing is this extreme, drastic separation from traditional foods. They don’t go on diets, they go on nothing.”
Vivas attributes the radical rejection of traditional meals to the American anti-carbohydrate mentality, popularized in part by the protein-heavy Atkins diet. “They’re looking at a dinner that has rice, tortilla and beans, and they’re putting that American fad diet judgment on it that is nothing but carbohydrates, so they don’t eat anything at all,” she said. “Their weight loss tends to be very dramatic, very medically scary.”
Scott believes that in order to be helpful, shows like “Starving Secrets” must emphasize not only diversity, but recovery. “If you’re going to go in the media, everything is going to be amplified,” she said. If it’s going to be marketable, it’s going to be sensationalized—unless you have the wisdom to have the show cursorily mention, ‘I suffered terribly,’ and then expand hugely on ‘How I recovered and stayed recovered.’”
The majority of “Starving Secrets’” pilot episode is indeed spent on the participants’ recovery. Cameras chronicle Rivka’s 180-day treatment; and by the end of the show, she appears entirely transformed—physically and emotionally—from the tortured woman she appeared to be at the top of the hour, trudging through the Toronto snow. Speaking candidly with Gold on camera, Rivka says, “I feel much more alive. I feel so much more vital.”
Experts like Vivas worry such a seemingly quick, drastic improvement could be deceptive. “If you have someone who is well spoken and charming and alive and they’re talking about this hellish road they’ve been down, it’s not going to seem that scary if the person seems perfectly fine,” she said. “If you really want to prevent eating disorders, you need to be teaching emotional regulation, self esteem, communication, assertiveness, how to be empowered—not glamorizing, sensationalizing and displaying eating disorder behaviors.”
Gold maintains that Rivka’s story and the others featured in “Starving Secrets” illustrate the gritty realities of eating disorders and in no way romanticize or idealize the harsh truth. “I think when anyone sticks their neck out and tries to do something, it’s easy for people who kind of sit back and just critique it and say there’s something wrong with it, but I think it’s hard to critique something you haven’t seen,” she said. “And also, I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with the progress the eating disorder community has made, so I say, why not try something different?”