Television review: “Louis Theroux: Talking to Anorexia” (2017)

“Louis Theoux: Talking To Anorexia (2017)



Running Time: 60 minutes

Presented by: Louis Theroux

Louis Theroux: “But that’s part of your illness there should be no shame attached, it’s an illness.”

If you enjoy watching Louis Theroux as well as his particular form of documentary, then the recent month has been a blessing for you as we have had four documentaries that reflect different parts of humanity that are able to illicit very different response not only from an audience, but from Theroux himself. This last point cannot be underestimated as Theroux can sometimes be a little restrained but here it is easy to see that this special had a deep effect on him, as it will on any viewer.

Theroux is a very different interviewer or documentarian; his style is as unique as the man himself. Theroux can come off as a fish out of water with many of his subjects; the reason for this is a planned one. He likes his subjects to lead him in whatever way they may like, he never forces an issue or is rarely confrontational, but never seems to be afraid of asking difficult questions, no matter the actual topic of one of his television shows. With “Talking to Anorexia” Theroux talks to a few women about their illness as well as how they are, or are not, coping with their condition. In this Theroux shows himself as someone who not only comes to care for these people but unveils new depths to his process.

This week saw the one off documentary “Louis Theroux: Talking To Anorexia” (2017) an hour-long show on BBC Two, Theroux spent time with in-patients in an anorexia ward at a north London hospital, as they struggled with their illnesses and relapses.

“Anorexia nervosa is a serious illness characterised by extreme weight loss caused by behaviours of dieting/food restriction and/or excessive exercise to the point of self-starvation, which may result in death. Due to the irrational fear of weight gain an individual develops inappropriate eating habits or rituals and compensatory behaviours in an effort to “burn off” calories. Sufferers may display an obsession with having a thin body and often have a distorted body self-perception; seeing themselves as fat when they are clearly underweight.

Individuals with anorexia tend to experience extreme anxiety and fear around food and eating, which to others will seem irrational or even bizarre. In a seemingly paradoxical way the more the individual tends to lose weight and engage in food avoidance the more extreme their fears and behaviours tend to become.

Anorexia is not a choice nor is it something that one can “snap out of”. Sufferers experience not just anxiety but extreme feelings of guilt, panic, hopelessness and distress that are very frightening to them and those around them. A defining characteristic of the disorder is the individual’s denial of the problem and ambivalence to engage in treatment.

Anorexia occurs in approximately 0.5% of females and in only 0.05% of males, with the average age of onset in early to mid adolescence. However, younger and older adults may also present for treatment. “- New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic

Theroux almost always comes across to audience as either objective, or at least non-judgmental as it assists him (and us) in getting to know his subjects particularly intimately, in terms of situations that can be morally ambiguous. This was probably best represented last seen when the documentarian interviewed people that were addicted to alcohol – although you never got the feeling that Theroux felt any sorrow or pity for them. That is what makes this special so different as well as important in a very eye opening way.

It is obvious from the opening as well as all his interactions that Theroux feels helpless with the women that he talks to as well as the families that he interacts with. He is definitely a fish out of water, more so than in anything else he has ever done, he is also the most compassionate, my feeling was that if he could help he would of- but of course that is one of the issues, no matter what you do with this disease, it is up to he sufferer to pull themselves out of it. When Theroux sits down talking to these sufferers there are a couple of times when he has their phones, flicking through old photos, you can see him thinking about how far these poor woman have come – from looking healthy, even beautiful to the physical wrecks before him in the flesh. It is obvious that Theroux is well out of his depth in both understanding the problem as well as trying to assist where he can.

“Talking to Anorexia” is possibly Theroux’s best and most accomplished piece to date, he is really growing as a documentarian, (which given his experience is a tribute to the man) he is also choosing some interesting subjects to talk to, as well as showing audiences what it is really like to interact with people with very real issues. The other aspect of Theroux that is improving is his ability to empathize with people but not just paying lip service to them or the very real issues they face.

What was great was to see Theroux really care about what these people were talking about as well as how they were going to try and beat their illness, with some of the devastating effects it can have if it is not treated or overcome. This is not an easy subject to see or to approach, we are let in on deeply personal issues and emotions so it is to the subjects themselves that much of the credit for the success if this documentary should be given.

The strength of the show, was to show four very different people in their own homes as well as in a clinical situation. One of the more interesting was an older lady who had not had any healthy relationships for many years, she was trapped by her illness. Theroux was trying to understand as well as help her, in his own way, but he could not reach her in any perceptible way – which was a way to illustrate without being heavy handed how hard it is to reach people who simply do not want to be reached.

This documentary cannot be recommended highly enough, it is simply the best example of a documentarian at the top of his game. It says so much without being subjective; it attempts to understand why people harm themselves as well as showing how people can lose sight of what should be important in their lives. It also shows what support there is both in terms of family as well as others who make it their career to lift people up, care for them and then hopefully say goodbye and good luck.

This is the very best kind of television, it highlights, informs but does not exploit people for a good story or rating – this should be commended.


2 thoughts on “Television review: “Louis Theroux: Talking to Anorexia” (2017)

  1. I cannot completely agree with this review. Yes, it is thoughtful, considered and quite a bit scary, but it misses some major points. Not all patients with anorexia are underweight- and the seriousness of the disease cannot be measured in pounds or kilos. By focusing only on the extremely underweight, it moves the focus of the disease away from the fact that it is a mental disease, with possible physical symptoms.
    Being a mother of a only slightly underweight daughter with severe Anorexia Nevrosa, documentaries like this only make our way vack to a seminormal that much harder. We spend almost 8 hours a day by the table eating. Not a crumble passes into her mouth without us saying , take another bite. Our meals are devastating, with her crying, hitting her head or leaning out the window for air the whole time.
    After seeing this documentary at school we felt like stepping back two months in the long way back to some normality. For how can you explain to a child that the images shown in this program does NOT mean thst she is fat, or that she is sick, even though her weight is near normal. For the fact is, if I hadn’t spent half a day, every day on making sure she ate, she would eat avsolutely zero.

    Liked by 1 person

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