Documentary Theatre and Eating Disorders: An Art©\Based Intervention for Education, Empowerment, and Advocacy

Mikki Jordan


This paper argues that documentary theatre, a grassroots, community©\based dramatic process, has the potential to be a unique and empowering prevention and treatment modality for eating disorders through its potential for advocacy, education and catharsis. The rate of eating disorders is rapidly increasing in men and women of all racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds while educational and preventive efforts are doing little to adequately address the reality of what so many are struggling against. By combining oral history and advocacy with dramatic techniques, documentary theatre can create an open space where a community¡¯s voices might be heard and an honest, realistic examination of eating disorders might be explored.


Studies have reported that 50% of females age 18©\25 would rather be run over by a truck than be fat and 2/3 would rather be mean or stupid (Wolfe, 1991). Other studies have shown that 42% of 1st©\ 3rd graders wanted to be thinner and 81% of ten year olds are afraid of being fat (NEDA, 2009). Documentary theatre¡ª which combines advocacy, journalism, and oral history with dramatic elements (Wilmeth, 2007)¡ªhas enormous potential to be a uniquely effective educational tool and a practical means of combating eating disorders. It can be used to raise social awareness, mobilize community advocacy, and empower and support those who are struggling with an eating©\related illness, as well those in recovery. By creating a performance by, for, and of the people, documentary theatre represents a forum for a community¡¯s voices to be heard and for a realistic and relevant story of eating and body image to be told.

Documentary theatre has the capacity to incite change and action on a broad scale. The prevalence of eating disorders has been on the rise for decades and little action on an institutional level has been taken. Only seventeen states included eating disorders in the mental health parity laws passed in 2007. Furthermore, about 80% of the girls and women who have accessed care for their eating disorders do not get the intensity of treatment they need¡ªthey are often sent home weeks earlier than the recommended stay, and 96% of eating disorder professionals believe their anorexic patients are put in life©\threatening situations because health insurance policies mandate early discharge (Renfrew, 2003).

The prevalence of eating disorders is rapidly increasing in men and women of all racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds; they are even being seen in children as young as young as seven and in seniors as old as eighty. It is estimated that 27 million Americans and 70 million people worldwide are struggling with an eating disorder. If one were to factor in those who engage in disordered eating behaviors such as dieting, food obsession, weight obsession, and over©\exercising, these numbers would be substantially higher (Renfrew, 2003). As Naomi Wolfe (1991) describes, ¡°If anorexia is defined as a compulsive fear and fixation upon food, perhaps most western women (and many men) can be called mental anorexics.¡±

Eating disorders are considered a treatable medical illness with complex biological and psychological causes and often coexist with other psychiatric disorders. Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness as they often lead to other health complications including heart conditions and kidney failure (NIMH, 2009). In the course of the disordered relationship that contemporary culture has with food and body image, many people who count calories and diet compulsively, displaying symptoms of eating disorders, alternately go unnoticed or are even praised.

While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Task Force on Eating Disorders had implemented educational curricula in schools, Renfrew (2003) determined that the attempt was a complete failure. The strategy of having eating disorder survivors come in to share their experience with students merely served to increase the prevalence of eating disorders, as young people who were desperate to feel better about their changing bodies were introduced to new ideas of how to lose weight. We must keep in mind that young people in particular might romanticize pop©\culture depictions of potentially self©\destructive behaviors. The reality and danger of the eating disorder culture is simply not understood nor is the status quo of food and body obsession being adequately challenged, which is why educational efforts are failing: They address only the superficial or manifest issues while neglecting the complex latent issues that are often the catalysts for developing full©\blown eating disorders. They consist of top©\down, one©\dimensional messages that fail to connect to reality. This is where documentary theatre could intervene as a creative and effective educational tool.

Documentary theatre projects are typically created by a group of artists who go into a community to conduct a series of interviews, edit these interviews to shape the story they find most compelling, and then act out the stories in the format of a theatrical production. Documentary theatre has the potential to connect more openly and honestly with the psycho©\social and socio©\cultural pressures that many individuals struggle with, as it facilitates a broader exploration of these pressures, representing, as it does, the diversity of its artists¡¯ backgrounds and experiences (Bottoms, 2006).

One must be cautious in ones application of documentary theatre to the issue of eating disorders, however, because the same personal subjectivity that imbues documentary theatre with its strength to heal and empower might also lend itself to the exploitation of its subjects¡¯ voices¡ªeither inadvertently or with the best of intentions. The artist is always trying to balance a sense of loyalty to what is true with the need to make the performance dramatically effective. Ones appreciation of such work, which is presented onstage as ¡°truth,¡± must be tempered by the knowledge that a group of ¡°outsiders¡± has taken artistic license in determining and portraying what they consider to be the most compelling issues, events or characters within a given community (Claycomb, 2003). Indeed, there is no absolute truthful representation, but in combating eating disorders, potential practical benefits largely outweigh the concerns about factual inaccuracy. Ideally, those creating and performing the piece would connection to or experience with eating disorders. A troupe without connection to eating disorders risks collectively taking on the role of ¡°expert,¡± distancing themselves from their intended audience, and misrepresenting the actual stories and individuals themselves.

Documentary theatre could also function as a more therapeutic intervention by allowing for an exchange between those currently suffering and those who have recovered. It provides individuals who are currently battling an eating disorder many of whom might not believe that full recovery is possible, with an opportunity to hear the stories of those who have recovered or who are in recovery; they may begin to find new meaning in their experiences as they discover how their struggles and successes can now inspire others. Peggy Claude©\Pierre, a world renowned eating disorder therapist, has said that for incoming patients, spending time with fully recovered patients helps to create a ¡°bridge of hope¡± that is crucial and that no doctor can give (Claude©\Pierre, 2000).

Finally, documentary theatre has great potential to address media accountability in how the media utilizes images of ¡°beauty¡± against women, fueling a culture of body and food obsession that, no doubt, feeds into this eating disordered culture. As Naomi Wolfe (1991) states, ¡°There is nothing wrong with women¡¯s (or men¡¯s) faces or bodies that social change won¡¯t cure.¡± There is a dangerous economic investment in keeping women, and, increasingly, men, hating their bodies. The dieting industry grossed over $55 billion in the U.S. in 2005, while the cosmetic surgery grossed $31.7 billion globally in 2008 (Marketdata, 2005; BCC Research, 2009). In order to sell its products, it is imperative to convince the masses that they are inadequate and that they need cosmetic products and enhancement services to make them more valuable or attractive. It is a classic marketing scheme which is affecting more and more young children everywhere as they grow up with the belief that they are not beautiful enough unless they meet certain physical standards.

Social workers have an opportunity to raise this discussion to the next level through the mechanism of documentary theatre. In utilizing this performance©\based method, we might treat and educate younger generations, raise awareness about the roots and risks of eating disorders, and open a dialogue within communities, mobilizing a demand for action from policy makers, medical professionals, and the media. Across social work methodology, documentary theatre has great promise as a unique and dynamic intervention tool in addressing our eating©\disordered culture.


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About the Author

Mikki Jordan is a graduate of NYU, where she majored in Theater and Acting. For her first©\year placement she worked at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Senior Center at Saint Peter?s Church. She is also a NYS certified rape counselor. Her major methods at HCSSW are Group Work and Community Organizing. Ms. Jordan can be reached at

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