Louis Theroux: Talking To Anorexia

Posted on 9 November 2017
By Amy Farnworth
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In Louis Theroux’s most recent documentary he delves into the sad reality of the crippling eating disorder, Anorexia, and takes a look at what causes people to develop the disease and how it affects patients and their families.

Anorexia, in its most simple form, is a fear of eating and gaining weight, and unbeknown to many, has the highest mortality of any psychiatric disorder.

In ‘Talking to Anorexia’, Louis Theroux visits two hospitals in North London to chat to female patients and discuss the issues surrounding their diagnoses.

Sticking to his tried and tested format, Louis dives straight in to this hour-long documentary by introducing us to one of four anorexia victims; the opening scene showing an uncomfortable exchange of words between the awkward documentary maker and 63 year-old Janet, who has been suffering with anorexia since she was 18. The exchange begins with Janet asking Louis if he thinks she looks anorexic, to which he responds: “I’m not going to answer that. Just by having this encounter I’ve been sucked into this psychodrama.”

That’s exactly what this documentary portrays the reality of anorexia to be – a psychodrama; one in which a debilitating and horrific disease takes hold of a sufferer’s body and mind in equal measures, and spins their perceived version of normality upside down and out of control.

We soon see how the grips of anorexia have affected Janet and the devastating lengths she goes to in order to appease her condition – she explains how she can’t even eat a whole cracker without feeling that she needs to exercise in order to burn it off. She leaves half-sucked hard-boiled sweets on a shelf in her cupboard; those sweets will last her for weeks. On the first day of every month she allows herself one chocolate.

Describing how anorexia is a form of control, she admits to Louis that she couldn’t control anything in her life and didn’t want to grow up; she was scared, and anorexia became her best friend, her own little world: “It’s a nightmare. I’ve had it since I was 18, I’m now 63.”

Throughout the hour-long programme the audience meets three more victims of anorexia, each at different stages of the disease but none more or less viable in their sufferings than the other.

Rosie has been living with anorexia for around a year, and admitted herself to hospital for treatment after realising the condition could’ve almost killed her.

She began starving herself because of rejection, which led to her feeling that she needed to change the way she was. She tells Louis that before her admittance she was severely close to death – she’d lost her eyesight and her hearing due to malnutrition and not eating, and could barely walk or talk.

Then there’s Jess, a sweet and timid girl who’s been in treatment for nine years, spending the last five out of six birthdays in hospital. Her skeletal frame is a terrifically distressing sight; it’s fragility is obvious from the way she walks, the way she shyly holds herself and the way her body hunches over as if in automatic protection mode, her rib cage so prominent that any more weight loss would result in her bones protruding from her skin.

Jess tells Louis she struggles with exercise and has to complete 2000 star jumps a day as well as walking as much as she can while eating very little, if nothing at all.

When Louis takes a look at her Facebook account we are shown photos of when Jess was a healthy weight; the difference is startling. He broaches the subject of beauty and attractiveness in a subtle way of probing for information about why she slipped into anorexia.

She tries to explain that most people miss the point about beauty and attractiveness; for her, it’s not about looks; she’s under no illusion that she’s attractive as she is but she’s not concerned with that, all she’s concerned about is losing the weight. 

There are common misconceptions that anorexia is an attention-seeking thing, something to do with the desire to be a size zero, but it’s not. It’s a form of self-punishment, and Jess says she feels like she doesn’t deserve to eat, feeling guilty for even thinking about food. Then there are the issues surrounding control and anxiety: “People just don’t get it”, she says.

Later on Louis speak to 23 year-old Ifshana who has been sectioned because of her anorexia and is on her third round of residential treatment. She tells Louis that she can’t really see her illness in the mirror and when he asks if she accepts the fact she has anorexia she replies, “I guess.”

To the audience, it’s obvious she hasn’t come to terms with her condition, and with his unique ability to get his subjects to open up, Louis manages to demonstrate the fact that Ifshana is in some kind of denial; it’s as if she’s not bothered about the disease and the way it’s taken over her life.

In speaking to the nurses who are involved with Ifshana’s case, Louis learns that despite their efforts and intentions to ensure she makes a full recovery, they are in a catch-22 situation: Ifshana doesn’t want to make a full recovery so they can’t force her to adhere to their programmes, all they can do is monitor her and try to make sure her condition doesn’t worsen. If they were to provide her with no treatment at all then there would be risk of certain death. 

Each one of the ladies that Louis speaks to is beautiful, intelligent and loving, but they all suffer from a mental disability that despite many misconceptions isn’t just about looks and the need to feel skinny, or in fact is it about the need to adhere to what is deemed to be socially acceptable. It’s more about deep-seated feelings of powerlessness and a lack of self worth, and depressingly, anorexia is the only way they know how to take back some control over their own lives.

Through his ability to innocently and almost naively tip-toe around certain issues and ask questions many of us would be afraid to ask, we once again witness a quality that makes Louis Theroux and his documentaries so touching and humane.

At times he comes across as a kind of doddering uncle, one who’s a little bit out of touch with what’s going on; but this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

With plenty of empathy, Louis makes it clear that these girls are not well. He tells the viewer that anorexia is a disease that hijacks people’s thinking, it makes them believe they’re in control, when really they’re not. Despite there being support out there for them, it’s hard to see how patients will ever break the cycle. 

In Talking to Anorexia, Louis provides viewers with an insight into a disease that we as a society have become so familiar with but are still no closer to eradicating or controlling. And even though the documentary gives the audience a better understanding and awareness into anorexia in females, an exploration into anorexia in males would have been just as, if not more interesting.

Perhaps he will follow up with an insight into male eating disorders, who knows, but for now, Louis Theroux remains one of our most revered documentary makers, and we can’t wait to see what he does next.

Purple Revolver rating: 4/5