Recently, I stayed up late two weeks in a row to watch each part of an English documentary entitled Super Skinny Me: the Race to Size Zero. It concerned two female journalists embarking on the activity described in the subtitle and, naturally, becoming obsessive about food in particular, and as intense as Rasputin generally, getting bags under their eyes and talking directly to camera on grainy video. I enjoyed this program a lot but it did raise questions for me about whether eating-disorder-based television now has as much to offer as it did back in the glory days of the nineteen eighties.
I recall that when I was at school, anorexia nervosa was still the jewel in the crown of eating-based psychological affliction and the TV pickings were rich. A Current Affair always seemed to be profiling some anorexic teenage girl who needed to be carted off, at great expense to everybody, to an eating disorders clinic in an inconvenient location such as Quebec. One of my favourite hallmarks of these stories was when the waif, often with a tube in her nose, would be trotted through the streets while a journalist asked random strangers if they thought she was fat. Of course, the people in question invariably said she wasn’t, but I was always dying to see someone say that she was.
I had a tiny dip in the eating-disorders waters when I was sixteen or so. There was no tube in the nose, but I did ‘fine down’ physically, and roar and scream if requested to eat anything resembling what most people would classify as a ‘meal’. I kept up these antics for about a year, until I went to England for a holiday, and feasts of tinned rice pudding and ‘plain chocolate’ digestive biscuits in front of EastEnders ‘Omnibuses’ (as they used to call the multiple episodes at the weekend) were the order of the day, certainly putting paid to all the whittling down I’d done earlier. However, due to my year of nuttily slaving at the low-joule coalface, I have always had a keen interest in any representation of this particular condition, televisual, or otherwise, in the same way that one feels important whenever a fictional character has the same profession as oneself.
So, back in the day, I of course relished a night in front of The Best Little Girl in the World, a 1981 telemovie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as a schoolgirl who, after her ballet teacher (who is, of course, named Madame Seurat) tells her that she could stand to lose a few pounds, gets herself down to skin and bone, then ends up hospitalised, along with a scarf-wearing Melanie Mayron (later to portray Melissa in thirtysomething!). Wikipedia describes Leigh at the movie’s conclusion thus: ‘In the final scene, she eats ice cream without disliking it’.
I don’t recall having seen an anorexia telemovie of this quality since, but was excited to read that Beatrice Sparks, Mormon youth counsellor and, controversially, the grown woman behind classic 1971 Psych Out-style ‘teen diary’ Go Ask Alice, recently brought into the world Kim: Empty Inside: The Diary of an Anonymous Teenager. This is purportedly the journal of a teenager who becomes anorexic due to her intense wish to be accepted into the UCLA gymnastics program. (Clearly, the message that young girls should be taking from all this is to stay away from ballet and gymnastics.) I have to admit that I admire what I’ve read of Kim so far. For example: ‘Tad said he liked my shoulder-length hair pulled up in tight curls and my pink pants and tank top, which I had thought looked kind of babyish and made me look fat…We saw All the Pretty Horses. It was lame, but it gave us lots to laugh about at the Burger Bin and on the way home’.
The acme of ‘case-study art’, however, is unquestionably the series of ‘Portrait’ telemovies from the nineteen seventies and eighties. These films, all of which seemed to feature Lesley Ann Warren, really examined the issues of our time, not to mention incorporating a galaxy of stars. To wit, we had Sarah T – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975); Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway (1976); Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn (1977); Portrait of a Stripper (1979); Portrait of an Escort (1980) and Portrait of a Showgirl (1982). They included in their various supporting casts Cyd Charisse, Tony Curtis, Larry Hagman, and, it is depressing to note, in her last-ever performance, Singin’ in the Rain’s brilliant Jean Hagen, playing a landlady in Alexander.
Now, some of the Portraits were stronger than others – I recall that, for instance, Portrait of an Escort didn’t really live up to the promise of its name – but the premium ones are absolutely ‘the business’. There seems to be some correlation between the length of the title and the quality of the film, as Sarah T, Dawn and Alexander were, to my mind, unquestionably the strongest Portraits: Linda Blair, as Sarah T, drinking to calm her nerves, then wowing everyone with her rendition of ‘It’s Too Late’ at a party and forcing catty schoolmates to eat their words; and, respectively, big-hat-wearing black pimps aplenty and ‘rap sessions’ in Dawn and Alexander. You knew you were in safe hands with a Portrait movie when it came to getting a satisfying denouement: as one Internet synopsis of Sarah T notes, ‘Only when Sarah causes the death of a horse does she strengthen her resolve to remain “clean and sober”’.
Now, though, with the rise of documentaries, such ‘case study’ telemovies seem, unfortunately, to be going the way of Cheryl Ladd variety specials. While, yes, I was glued to Super Skinny Me, and relished, for example, one of the women having troubles with her boyfriend because she was always in an evil mood due to the fact she was allowed to consume only a repulsive green soup, and the other woman’s demented joy when she was able to fit into tiny little clothes, it just didn’t have the Portrait dramatic arc. All that happened in Super Skinny Me was that the green-soup one finished her stint, and was hoeing into a massive piece of cake within minutes of doing so, while the tiny-clothes one, boringly, had to withdraw from the regime, due to the recommendations of health professionals, but was ultimately able to order pasta for lunch without feeling overly guilty about it.
Geez, I had wanted Super Skinny Me to go out on something bigger than this after I’d sat up till midnight on a Tuesday for two consecutive weeks. I am begging the people behind the Portrait movies, or at least Beatrice Sparks, to get on the ‘size zero TV’ case. I want some razzamatazz to go with food-related-obsessive-behaviour-based entertainment (and it is entertainment, believe me), not merely footage of a woman walking along a dreary street and not going into a Wimpy Bar.