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"Reality" TV Trigger Health Issues?

Are You Hot? could be trouble for teens, others prone to eating disorders.

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 28, 2003 -- First there were The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Joe Millionaire -- shows that seemingly ignore the necessities for matrimonial bliss in exchange for Nielsen ratings -- and quite successfully. Now new concerns are emerging over one of the latest "reality" television shows and potential eating disorders.

In Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People, a parade of eye candy displays well-sculptured pecs and perky breasts before celebrity judges, who then detail the contestants' not-so-apparent physical flaws. Entertaining perhaps, but some say this ABC show hits at the emotional health of those who are particularly vulnerable -- teens and others prone to eating disorders.

"Individuals on this show are basically deciding that they're going to trade 10 minutes on TV for a fair amount of emotional mistreatment, but they're adults and are welcome to choose to do that. I'm concerned more about the people who watch it, because the show's theme that seems to get played out is what is really important in life is how you look," says psychologist Randall Flanery, PhD, director of the eating disorders program at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. "People on this show are proposing they look pretty good and from what I've seen, they do, yet many still wind up getting trashed."

Flanery tells WebMD he's especially concerned about its teenage viewers, who are particularly vulnerable to the cultural ideal in this and other media that suggests the only way to look good is to be thin. "This show isn't alone, but it especially reinforces the idea that if you're not thin, you're a failure and if things aren't going right in your life, it's because you're not thin."

That, he says, is a recipe for eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, which affect some 8 million Americans -- primarily teenage girls and young women.

"There is research suggesting that females who spend more time looking at thin models and comparing themselves to these models are more likely to be dissatisfied with how they look and are more committed to weight loss," Flanery tells WebMD. "This is especially true for girls between ages 13 and 18, who are trying to determine their self-identity and form the person they want to become."

Holly Hoff, program director of the National Eating Disorders Association, also has concerns about the new show, though concedes she hasn't watched it.

"The objectification of individuals based on their looks places a really unfortunate overemphasis on determining people's value and appeal based solely on their appearance," she tells WebMD. "And that sets up pressure that could be part of a very dangerous downward spiral. Girls in this country are literally dying to be thin, since anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. And we know when people set out to try [to] emulate these most often unhealthy and unattainable standards that they're seeing on shows like this, they go to drastic eating and exercise behaviors that aren't necessarily healthy for them."

So what can parents do -- especially in light of a new study, in the March issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, that finds people typically pay close attention to their own and others' attractiveness?

"Communicate with your kids on what they are watching and why," says Hoff, whose association serves as a non-profit clearinghouse for information about eating disorders. "Parents need to find out if their children are watching this show and want to look like that, where does this come from? Do they think it will make them more socially accepted? Are they concerned about their body size and shape? Do they really have a weight issue that should be addressed?"

Or follow the advice of Flanery, the father of 10: "Be assertive and say, 'This is a bad show and when I'm in the house, you don't watch it.' More importantly, parents need to stress to their kids that it's not as important how they look as how they treat other people, their values, and what they do with their life."

Both ABC Television spokeswoman Susan Sewell and Are You Hot? publicist Pat Breblick declined comment.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Randall Flanery, PhD, director, Eating Disorders Program and Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Holly Hoff, program director, Nation Eating Disorders Association, Seattle. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, March 2003. -->
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