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Eating Disorders: Stigma & The Social Cure

Two decades ago, people would only whisper the words “breast cancer.” Susan G. Komen, as she lay dying from the disease, asked her sister, Nancy Brinker to try to raise awareness. Because of Nancy’s tireless outreach, people now discuss breast cancer openly. Along with this new openness, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has raised millions of dollars for research that has helped save lives.

Today the topic of eating disorders is where breast cancer was twenty years ago. There is still tremendous shame and stigma surrounding these problems, which only increases the suffering of victims and their families. Anorexia, binge eating and bulimia are still viewed as shameful, disgusting, embarrassing and a sign of mental weakness.

There is a community of eating disorder survivors, family members and treatment providers working hard to remove this stigma. I decided to use theater to break through defenses and touch folks at an emotional level. Back in 1996, I wrote the play “What’s Eating Katie?” about a 13-year-old girl who struggles with an eating disorder. In the show, the Eating Disorder (ED) is played by an actor representing a separate character (based in the Narrative Therapy approach which “externalizes” problems). This technique allows the audience to hear what it sounds like inside of Katie’s head. Katie, like most eating disorder sufferers, is a high achiever, one of “the best and brightest.” She is a perfectionist who want to make everyone happy. Like the canary in the toxic coalmine of our culture, she’s the one who succumbs to the stress and pressure. Audience members relate to Katie since we all have an internal negative voice; the only difference may be that Katie’s internal negative voice is meaner, more controlling and highly destructive.

My goal in creating the show was to rip the lid off this topic, even though many adults are afraid to address eating disorders out of their fear of glamorizing them or giving kids ideas. In fact, the ideas that teens take from this show are: dieting is ridiculous; starving leads to moodiness, spaciness and weakness; binge eating is an out-of-control nightmare; and throwing up is both addictive and dangerous. The only rational conclusion is to respect, feed and take care of your body!

I’m happy to report that over the past 15 years, high schools and colleges around the country (as well as Scotland and Australia!) have performed this show. Act I takes place over the course of one day, when ED recruits Katie into engaging in an extreme diet that takes a frightening turn. Act II takes place three months later when we can see the toll that ED has taken on Katie, her family and her friends. It ends with an uplifting scene in a therapist’s office where Katie begins her journey towards recovery.

Between scenes are hilarious “ads,” spoofing the diet, fashion, fast food and fitness industries. The idea is not to “blame” these forces for Katie’s eating disorder but to place her struggle within a wider cultural context. By seeing plainly the manipulations of the corporations that profit from making us fat, insecure and then thin again, the audience will be better at critiquing the core messages that can lead to unhealthy behaviors (“You will be popular, loved and happy if you are THIN, so get there no matter what the price!”) By making the messages explicit, they have less power to influence attitudes and behaviors.

One of my favorite things about this project is that the purveyors of the new messages are the teens themselves. An audience of middle school kids is going to be much more open to messages in a show performed by high school students than to adults lecturing them about taking care of their bodies.  We know that peers are a potent influence regarding attitudes and behaviors; unfortunately we typically hear about how this influence leads kids to dangerous places (sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll!).  The idea of this show is to use "peer influence" for Good rather than Evil.  This process has been dubbed "The Social Cure."  I recently updated the script to including cell phones and texting, Google and Facebook (none of which were around in 1996!). But I wanted to bring the show to the next level by turning it into a musical. I stumbled upon a gifted actor-composer-music director named Bryan Mercer. He knows how to make a show fresh and engaging, hip and meaningful. We feel that the combination of my 20 years as a psychologist combined with his 30 years in musical theater will allow us to create a show that will both educate and entertain today’s sophisticated youth audience.

In order to help fund this stage of the project, I decided to work through the website. If you care about this issue, we want you to be part of this project! Your donation (large or small) will allow us to fund the composing of nine songs and the recording of the tracks. We’ll reach out nationwide to promote this as a fresh, bold way to address dieting, weight stigma, body image and eating disorders. We’ll also approach local schools and community groups about performing the show in Atlanta in 2012.

This is a life-changing and potentially life-saving project. The show will engage and enlighten cast and audience members and provide hope for sufferers and loved ones. Ultimately, it encourages people to seek help because recovery is possible. We hope that you want to be part of it!

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