Healthy Mind

Reality TV Shows Need To Reconsider Eating-Related Competitions

Zoe Weiner

Photo: W+G Creative
On Monday night's episode of The Bachelorette, a handful of male contestants on a group date were put through a "Truth or Dare"-style obstacle course meant to challenge them "physically, mentally, and emotionally." The entire segment was cringeworthy (they were tasked with waxing each other's hairiest body parts and whispering sweet nothings into a giant animatronic ear), but one challenge in particular was potentially harmful for people who struggle with disordered eating.

The course's "carb station" tasked the men with consuming exorbitant amounts of fettuccini Alfredo, chocolate cake, mashed potatoes and gravy, and the like while Bachelorette Katie Thurston and co-hosts Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe watched and laughed. "I haven't eaten a carb in seven years," griped Mike P., a gym owner who ate a behemoth platter of Twinkies. "If I get fat, she better still love me when I'm older."

Eating challenges on reality TV have been mainstay since Joe Rogan was coaching contestants through cockroach buffets on Fear Factor in the early aughts. We've seen past Bachelor hopefuls forced to speed-eat piles of pancakes, Survivor contestants asked to down a "piranha feast," and a disturbing Love Island segment called the"Trifle Challenge" that involved contestants eating and regurgitating each of the dessert's layers. And though these moments may be good for ratings, they're hugely problematic in the way that they depict the consumption of food.

Binge-eating disorder, which the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) characterizes as "recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, a feeling of a loss of control during the binge, and experiencing shame, distress, or guilt afterwards" is the most common eating disorder in the United States. And 2007 research from Biological Psychiatry found that 3.5 percent of women and 2 percent of men experience a binge-eating disorder throughout their lives. Other eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, may also include symptoms of binge-eating (followed by periods of restriction or purging), and seeing this type of behavior made light of on TV—the way The Bachelorette did in its most recent episode—can be triggering for viewers and contestants alike.

"It's not taking into account the fact that witnessing these behaviors can elicit countless numbers of feelings in people who are watching." —Anna Sweeney, RD

Anna Sweeney, RD, a certified eating disorder registered dietitian, says a number of her clients have shared they feel overwhelmed upon seeing depictions of high-volume food intake. "And in this case [of The Bachelorette], I don't believe it's being done with the purpose of telling someone who is struggling with a binge-eating disorder, bulimia, or anorexia with a binge-purge subtype that this behavior is normal. It's making fun, and it's not taking into account the fact that witnessing these behaviors can elicit countless numbers of feelings in people who are watching."

In using binge-eating as a punchline, reality TV chooses to ignore the very real struggles that people with eating disorders experience on a daily basis. "Binge-eating disorder often goes undiagnosed, which I think is in large part due to the societal stigma against overeating. But really, it's a mental illness and a serious disorder," says Alissa Rumsey, RD, a nutrition therapist and certified intuitive eating counselor. "In this case, seeing someone eat large amounts of food contributes to the idea that it's not a mental illness, that it's just someone who is out of control or doesn't have willpower."

Though the franchise has also put its female contestants through food gauntlets (most recently in that aforementioned pancake-eating competition, which aired during the most recent season of The Bachelor), Monday night's Bachelorette episode perpetuates the common and incorrect belief that disordered eating is a gendered issue—one that spares men. But according to the British eating disorders charity BEAT, about 25 percent of people diagnosed with an eating disorder are male, and according to NEDA, binge-eating disorder in particular affects just as many men as it does women.

"We don't see eating disorders represented in males as frequently as they actually do exist, and we're not seeing it mirrored in popular culture—we can't look at a person and know they have an eating disorder," says Sweeney. Case in point? Just last year, Bachelorette contestant Ben Smith opened up on the show about his own 15-year history eating disorders.

There's also the fact that Bachelor Nation is notorious for its lack of body diversity. In its now 47 seasons, there has only been one female contestant who is plus-size (Bo Stanley, on Chris Soules's season), and she was cut the first week. When Chris Harrison—the longtime host of the franchise who recently exited after making racially insensitive comments—was asked in 2014 whether we'd ever see a "chubby" Bachelor, his response was "No... Because that’s not attractive."

That stance makes airing a segment dedicated to watching muscular, carb-averse bros binge-eating Twinkies—and jokingly lamenting as if it were the worst thing in the world—all the more problematic. "People may watch the show and have the impression that eating a carbohydrate for the first time in however long is going to make them undesirable to a potential partner," says Sweeney. "The messaging suggests, 'Will she love me if I eat like this and my body changes?' And for a lot of people, those messages are actual realities."

With that in mind, it's time that eating challenges on reality TV stop being a thing. "It's sensationalizing what is quite often a very, very painful experience and something that we shouldn't be making light of," says Sweeney. "And it's insulting to humans who are actually suffering."

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