‘The Greatest Little Woman within the World’ was the 1st-ever TV film about anorexia. Consultants grapple with its legacy

Jennifer Jason Leigh in a scene from the 1981 ABC-TV film The Greatest Little Woman within the World. (Picture: Everett Assortment)

I’ll always remember the primary popular culture depiction that I noticed about an consuming dysfunction: 1981’s The Greatest Little Woman within the World, a high-drama, Emmy-nominated TV-movie starring 18-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh as Casey, a highschool pupil who develops anorexia.

It made a long-lasting mark on me, an impressionable preteen intrigued with magazines and eating regimen tradition, not solely due to Jason Leigh’s hauntingly stellar efficiency however as a result of in some way, the movie made the thought of anorexia appear much less scary than intriguing, glamorous and darkly fascinating.

On some complicated degree, I envied Casey, a good looking, skinny, ballet-dancing perfectionist. And whereas my try and emulate fortunately did not go a lot previous counting energy, consuming SlimFast bars and asking my old-school ballet instructor for eating regimen ideas, I have been questioning what made the dramatization so triggering? And who else would possibly’ve been spurred on by Casey’s story?

A dialogue of types on the subject was not too long ago sparked on the Fb web page Brat Pack and ’80s Teen Films, which posted to its 76,000 followers a picture from the movie exhibiting Jason Leigh and co-stars, together with Ally Sheedy, in a school-cafeteria scene. It prompted a slew of Gen X commenters to reminisce and, in some circumstances, blame the film — and the novel of the identical title that impressed it, by psychologist Steven Levenkron — for their very own consuming issues, with no less than one recalling how friends used it as a “how-to” information.

“Ahhh … The e-book that helped create my consuming dysfunction,” Christine Hermes commented on the put up, elaborating for Yahoo Life that she, too, was seduced by Casey’s story.

“Actually, it was the eye she obtained,” Hermes says about what made turning into anorexic appear interesting. “I had a single mother who was an alcoholic and I suffered from melancholy and anxiousness. If I drank, nobody would discover or have cared, however you may’t ignore a toddler who’s slowly killing herself by ravenous.”

Margo Maine, Nationwide Consuming Problems Affiliation co-founder and medical psychologist, tells Yahoo Life that, wanting again at each the e-book and the film model of The Greatest Little Woman within the World, one of many greatest issues was that “it kind of described the behaviors — however did not describe the ache of the behaviors — so that you simply knew easy methods to do it.”

Maine, who has handled sufferers with consuming issues for 40 years and authored six books on the subject, says that she and different consultants on the time discovered The Greatest Little Woman within the World to be “oversimplified… ego-driven…and really, very stereotypical,” exhibiting anorexia as a white, middle-class, girls-only subject. However the info are that consuming issues don’t discriminate, affecting individuals no matter race or age or gender or sexual identification.

Additional, each the e-book and film “glamorized the consuming dysfunction,” which made it “harmful for lots of ladies,” Maine says, because the protagonist “will get numerous consideration and she or he’s very engaging and she or he loses weight. It’s extremely simplistic.”

The chance for ladies between about 11 and 18 who watched the film was that “women are actually on the lookout for an identification, a option to be particular,” she explains, including that teen magazines on the time added to these kind of aspirations. “It is on the lookout for a option to outline your self and a option to be seen, and I believe a film like it is a nice instance of that,” she says.

Provides Lucy Bassett, an affiliate professor of follow of public coverage on the College of Virginia who has studied the media’s depiction of consuming issues, Casey “is gorgeous, and she or he suffered on this stunning, poetic manner,” which will be seen as alluring.

Watching it for the primary time not too long ago (on this fuzzy YouTube put up, because the film is presently unavailable on streaming providers), Bassett, who has struggled with anorexia on and off, discovered it “horrifying” that the film included characters principally “giving all these concepts” about “easy methods to do [an eating disorder] higher.” She typically discovered it to be “sensational” and “triggering,” although she does consider the movie “was attempting to indicate how unhealthy this may be.”

Levenkron, now 81 and nonetheless seeing sufferers, tells Yahoo Life that, after his e-book discovered an viewers, his writer on the time reached out to say, “‘This must be a film for tv since you’ll attain extra individuals.'” He says, “I did not notice it was the one e-book on the topic, and [after it was published] I obtained deluged by moms who wished me to deal with their daughters.”

Levenkron rapidly turned recognized for his unconventional therapy strategy, which concerned “creating dependency” between himself and his sufferers. He went on to put in writing extra books and was despatched on a talking tour by his writer, who instructed him, “You are going to change into the nation’s knowledgeable on anorexia,” although it was one thing Levenkron says he by no means got down to be.

Jennifer Jason Leigh with a co-star, Melanie Mayron, in The Best Little Girl in the World. (Photo: B Talamon /American Broadcasting Companies via Getty Images)

Jennifer Jason Leigh, left, with a co-star, Melanie Mayron, in The Greatest Little Woman within the World. (Picture: B Talamon /American Broadcasting Firms by way of Getty Photos)

As for the film model of his e-book, which had an altered plot, “I did not look after it,” he says. “It ended on a foolish word, along with her within the hospital for 2 months after which consuming ice cream along with her therapist, when it could have been extra like two years.” Concerning claims that it could have triggered a number of the girls who would then change into his sufferers, Levenkron says, “I did not get these sorts of calls. They had been determined to get higher, and no person claimed — effectively, possibly a pair — that they obtained the thought from that.”

Nonetheless, NEDA’s director of schooling, Elizabeth Atunkara, tells Yahoo Life that this movie and so many others can definitely tip somebody into harmful territory. “Messages in media, promoting, leisure and in our society about weight-reduction plan, and this stress for thinness are internalized from a younger age and might negatively have an effect on each side of 1’s life resulting in pointless emotions of disgrace and a distortion of 1’s personal physique picture, which triggers anxiousness, self-consciousness and might contribute to a decline in psychological and bodily well being,” she says.

How views of consuming issues have modified — and remained the identical

The best way Jason Leigh (whose supervisor didn’t reply to Yahoo Life’s request for touch upon this story) has spoken about The Greatest Little Woman within the World to the press over the many years has advanced with the general public’s understanding; early interviews had her stepping into the triggering nitty-gritty of the position — how a lot she ate and the way a lot weight she misplaced, to the purpose the place her physician positioned a anxious name to the studio.

However in 2015 to Interview, her focus shifted. “That position was essential to me, as a result of my greatest good friend in center faculty had anorexia, so I felt a deep connection to it. I actually liked doing it,” she mentioned. “You understand, the lady who was my [body] stand-in died shortly after doing the film. And that was fairly horrible. It was so unhappy, since you did not know what duty we had in that. Did we make the film glorify it for her ultimately?”

How the movie depicted Casey’s therapy, Maine says, was additionally indicative of the occasions, reflective of how consuming issues had been approached by clinicians all through the Nineteen Eighties and ’90s — “medicalized,” “authoritative” and infrequently sexist. In different phrases, she says, “a white man telling the ladies what to do.” concerning this strategy within the TV film, Bassett says “it is principally like, the therapist and physician are males, they usually type of save her — it isn’t even her discovering the inside power to beat.”

Maine remembers going to consuming dysfunction conferences in these days, and that “all of the audio system on the stage had been males and the viewers was all girls.” She provides, “On the whole, psychological well being … was dominated by males, so girls’s voices took some time to be heard.” Now, she says, the sector of consuming dysfunction therapy is “very, very various” and “full of girls.”

The present strategy to therapy typically includes a psychological-behavioral mixture of remedy on both an outpatient or inpatient foundation, relying on severity; and cognitive behavioral remedy (CBT) is taken into account “first in line” therapy, with a workforce of consultants, usually together with a nutritionist, psychiatrist and household therapist, offering collaborative care. (NEDA’s web site presents an interactive, regional information to discovering therapy.)

However again then, Maine says, “the usual was you took all their privileges away and [the patient] needed to earn them again. And numerous hospital-based applications did not give remedy till you had been a sure weight… We have come a great distance within the understanding of consuming issues and treating individuals extra like individuals,” however provides that, sadly, “there’s nonetheless numerous deal with weight per se.”

Whereas Levenkron was not the one clinician efficiently treating sufferers with anorexia on the time, Maine says, “In some methods, I believe he was a pioneer, as a result of he wrote about it,” and, between the e-book and the film, there was goal, as “it was the primary try to teach the general public about consuming issues in a giant manner.”

Sadly, the way in which by which the media has depicted and dramatized consuming issues has barely advanced in all of the years since, each Maine and Bassett lament. Though current examples — together with Netflix’s 2017 movie To the Bone, Feed (directed by and starring Troian Bellisario, who struggled with an consuming dysfunction), The Crown sequence, the movie Spencer and the Apple+ sequence Bodily — have inched nearer to actuality, they nonetheless have an “picture downside,” says Bassett.

“The primary picture downside is that the illustration of consuming issues within the media does not replicate what it’s in actuality — who truly has consuming issues, whether or not we’re speaking about gender, race, age or dimension,” says Bassett, who in 2022 compiled a dataset of almost 100 characters with EDs on TV and in films from the Nineteen Eighties to the current day, evaluating their demographics to these of actuality. The consequence revealed an excessive lack of characters who had been male, non-white, larger-bodied, older or LGBTQ.

An analogous monitoring venture, by Miriam Haart when she was a virtual-reality teacher at Stanford College, had related conclusions. “Evidently even when movies do embody women and men of coloration [like To The Bone], the storylines are closely knotted with tropes and cliches,” she wrote in her conclusions. “Are consuming issues such a minefield to grasp that even these with direct expertise have issue narrating them? Or maybe the problem for filmmakers lies in concurrently striving for authenticity and industrial success.”

Despite the fact that there’s been some enchancment over time concerning the early glorification of Casey, says Bassett, “it is nonetheless that almost all [portrayed in media] are younger white females.” And that issues, she explains, as a result of the medical group won’t acknowledge those that need assistance. “Or individuals won’t acknowledge it in themselves, making it tougher to ask for assist,” she says. “And due to these being issues that usually make individuals really feel so remoted and secretive, the extra recognition there’s … the higher it’s for individuals getting therapy early,” which improves possibilities of restoration.

So far as whether or not a superbly consultant, complicated, accountable depiction of an consuming dysfunction is feasible? “I do not assume we have gotten there but. It is simply so dangerous and really easy to sensationalize and glamorize,” Maine says. “I believe it may be depicted effectively, however it could be a really full story and there could be numerous nuance to it and it won’t finish simply and fortunately… The Greatest Little Woman within the World ends along with her agreeing to eat, and a twinkle in her eye. It isn’t all the time like that. It is often a for much longer journey.”

In the event you or somebody you realize is fighting an consuming dysfunction, name the Nationwide Consuming Problems Affiliation hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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