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Compulsive Overeating On TV: Why Do We Think It's Cute?

08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Food on TV has always been a strange subject. I remember vividly seeing couples fight on primetime soaps over their dinners as a child and while most people were focusing on their affairs, threats, or evil twin, I was thinking "Are you crazy? Eat the FOOD!!" And when, inevitably, an impassioned soul would throw a plate to the floor my mind would scream, "No, not the potatoes!"

The use and nature of food on television has shifted over the years, as American attitudes and struggles have changed. But, despite growing obesity rates and a new understanding about young girls and body image, most of the food-used-to-control-emotions situations we see are used for humor.

Last month, Sadie Stein of Jezebel.com wrote a piece called the "Type-Casting: The Skinny Glutton," about how skinny women on TV are often bingers, but it's never seen as a problem, just a quirky punchline:

Grace Adler. Lorelei Gilmore. And, yes, Liz Lemon. You've seen them over and over, these slender women stuffing their faces for comic effect. Because they're quirky! And down to earth! And lonely! But always skinny, so it's okay!

She goes on to cite various examples of this theme on network TV and then gets to the broader cultural problem:

These scenes of aggressive gluttony are about debasement. If unhealthy food is the ultimate sin now, the one thing left to maintain a moral stigma, these characters are showing that they hate themselves. But, because they're still skinny, we laugh and even get a vicarious thrill. Maybe we should ask why.

I think she's hit on several important points here, but for my purposes the two that matter are a) it's ok to use food to fill or avoid an emotional vacuum as long as you don't physical manifest problem surrounding this addiction, and b) it's always funny so we never have a discussion about what this behavior means and what message it sends to young women.

When I was younger I ate to avoid feeling anything, to numb myself and that's what these women do on TV. Liz Lemon is upset about her life, her lack of family and love so she eats a bunch of ham. Grace can't find a boyfriend so donuts are the answer. Food is not the answer to any problem beyond hunger.

But it's not just skinny women any more. Alec Baldwin plays Jack Donaghy on "30 Rock," a male binge-eater who is known to down price-club-sized tubs of cheese curls and plates of pastries in a single sitting. He eats to avoid problems with his mother and hide from his abandonment issues. If he were getting drunk in the middle of work or doing some blow before he chatted with mom it probably wouldn't be as funny, although there are dark comedies that also make light of these addictions. The point is that he is a successful handsome man and this is seen as a funny weakness, but for many people who engage in this behavior it's a life-threatening problem.

The reason I chose to write this blog post now is because of the new show on Lifetime "Drop Dead Diva." I think it's wonderful that there's a female television heroine out there who is not a size 2, but I'm concerned that she is always stuffing her face with junk partially because it gives others the impression that fat people are fat only because they love éclairs and, more importantly, it promotes food as answer to problems beyond hunger. In one episode Jane gets upset and her assistant, played by Margaret Cho, shoots some cheese whiz into her mouth to calm her down. Really? That's not how I want my role models to handle their problems. And let's not make any mistake--these characters are role models. We get an immense amount of information about cultural attitudes and practices from television and to normalize this behavior without talking about the consequences is dangerous for all involved. It makes food a viable alternative for emotional maturity, it makes fat people feel bad about not being able to eat that much and be thin, and, worst of all, it undercuts the idea that food issues are serious problems for many Americans who can die trying to control their lives in that way.

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