The Media’s Sensational Monster: What’s So Wrong About the Coverage of Rachael Farrokh

by Jeanene Harlick | May 23, 2015 4:17 am

Many of you have probably already seen the video that is now going viral of Rachael Farrokh, a 5”7’, “40-something-pound” woman seeking donations to enter a treatment facility for severe anorexia. I am very purposely not linking to that video here.

Farrokh’s story, first covered this week by NBC4 Los Angeles, represents the epitome of journalistic, quick-hit sensationalism. In Farrokh’s personal YouTube video for example, the San Clemente woman is fully clothed. For NBC4’s interview, on the other hand, the news team had her purposely clad in tank tops and shorts: making her show as much cleavage as possible, highlighting her tragic, skeletal frame. The network’s segment also, among other things, included photos of Farrokh’s completely bare-bone – literally – back.

This whole escapade is troubling on a variety of levels, but let me start with the media problem.

NBC4’s segment is unforgiveably irresponsible, and provides the quintessential example of why media coverage of eating disorders is unethical and routinely done in a way which only exacerbates and perpetuates severe and chronic anorexia, rather than curb its spread – which you’d think any news organization would prefer to have as its mission, right?

Apparently not. Media – and television media in particular – would rather go for quick, one-sided, sappy pieces like this which cement the incredibly inaccurate myths, stereotypes and stigma surrounding severe anorexia in adult women. Media coverage that accounts – not entirely, but in part – for why people like me can’t get a job today: because I’m dismissed as some freakish being too crazy to employ. Even though I’m no longer severely malnourished. (Disclosure:  While I still struggle with my eating issues, and am somewhat underweight, I am not anywhere near the emaciated condition Farrokh is in. Entrenched, behavioral routines, as well as OCD, is what I battle most, currently).

On April 29, Farrokh and her husband launched a GoFundMe campaign to get Rachael to Denver Health’s ACUTE Eating Disorders program – one of the only programs in the nation capable of helping someone in the physical and mental condition she is in. Now, less than a month later, Farrokh is all over the news and has raised $180,000 – mostly because she looks terrifying.

Meanwhile, I – a former journalist who also struggles with chronic anorexia, severe OCD and clinical depression, but now subsists off SSDI – have been attempting, for the past year, to get media outlets and even the National Eating Disorders Association [1] to publish stories I’ve written – or at least raise awareness – on the complicated factors underlying long-term anorexia, and why treatment for women like Farrokh is so often ineffective: so that she and others stop reaching such extremes, and stop dying. All while continuing to work on my own recovery with outpatient providers.

But no one will publish me or cover the issues I raise. Alas, I’m not grossly thin-enough to warrant the media’s attention. (Or possess a fancy-enough degree to warrant NEDA’s).

Image credit: Barry Barnes [2]
Image credit: Barry Barnes

Apparently, neither my background, the quality of my writing, nor the issues I’m trying to highlight to improve outcomes for women with long-term anorexia matter. Apparently, what I need to do to get my voice listened to, is to go back to starving myself – but to do it even better. That – unless you happen to be a celebrity with anorexia – is clearly the only way to get one’s voice heard on this subject today.

What NBC4 and other mainstream outlets’ coverage of Farrrokh’s story says to women with both mild and severe forms of anorexia is this:

Just as worrisome is the very real possibility of what may go through the minds of girls and women with burgeoning anorexia who watch NBC4’s interview with Farrokh, or the associated YouTube video. Some could very likely start thinking to themselves, “Wow, I’m a horrible anorexic. I have no self-control, compared to this woman. I need to eat less. I need to do better.” Women with anorexia – research has shown – tend to be brutal perfectionists. So you can bet some who see this footage are now, more than ever, going to want to truly “excel” in the disorder, particularly if their anorexia is an emerging tool they’ve discovered to ameliorate excruciating, psychological pain.

It perplexes me how the majority of our nation’s, countless media outlets don’t get that the last thing they should be doing is giving more publicity to videos or photos of anorexic women in severely emaciated states. This irresponsible sensationlism feeds the disease, not the body – or soul – of the person. When obviously the latter is what’s sorely needed.

The other thing that troubles me about this issue is why – and the way in which – Farrokh launched this campaign in the first place.

Because as anybody with any knowledge of eating disorders in California knows, my very own law suit, Harlick v. Blue Shield, already requires insurance plans cover all “medically necessary” care of the nine, severe mental illnesses included in California’s Mental Health Parity Act – of which anorexia happens to be one. Our state law now mandates insurance plans cover whatever form of care a person with anorexia needs – depending on her or his state of illness – regardless of whether the individual’s plan includes the benefit or not. And this includes coverage of programs outside California.

So I simply don’t understand why Farrokh is raising money – and in such a visible way – in the first place, when she happens to live in a state with some of the best eating disorder treatment coverage in the nation. And the coverage my lawsuit made possible has been in place for four years. Therefore Farrokh has had plenty of time to seek treatment before reaching her current state. It has been her – and her husband’s – decision, to not act sooner to prevent her from now sitting on death’s doorstep. It is extremely disturbing to consider why they waited until now to go public and seek intense treatment.

Perhaps they were both in denial; I can understand that to some degree – or at least try to. Or perhaps Farrokh was too afraid to challenge the anorexia and undergo re-feeding; I can understand that a little more, as the physical process of it can be quite difficult, if not administered sensitively. Perhaps Farrokh’s cognition was so impaired, by malnourishment, she fooled herself into thinking her gradual weight loss was nothing to worry about, since she’d been through past treatment programs and had been pronounced “recovered.”

But still – to let it get to this extreme? Both Farrokh and her husband really went far past the point where it was possible to look at Farrokh’s body and remain blind to the urgency at hand. Particularly when Farrokh’s organs started failing, for goodness sake. I am not a fan of involuntary commitment in general, but when your wife’s life is in danger, hell yes – you involuntarily commit her.

NBC4 martyrizes Farrokh’s husband as her “caretaker,” a former fitness trainer (gee, I wonder if that played a role), who quit his job to attend to his wife.

Um, sorry NBC4 – I think the term you were actually searching for was “codependent enabler.” Farrokh’s husband – as well as the rest of her family and friends – are just as culpable as the media, by allowing her to remain out of treatment until now, when it’s too late.

Because it’s extremely, extremely likely this poor woman is going to die.

Rachael’s brain is so impaired right now she obviously can’t think clearly, so she is in no way deserving of criticism – including mine. And I hope my comments here do not come off that way. But I am not the only person in the eating disorder community who remains very perplexed, and seeks answers to questions which the couple continues to remain silent on. Since I posted this story Friday, I have received a flood of feedback from members in online eating disorder groups, thanking me for articulating issues they’ve been pondering and concerned about themselves.

Even when I was at my worst – which was, again, nowhere near the state Farrokh is in – the last thing I wanted was more people seeing the physical state I was in; seeing the veins on my arms popping out, seeing my hallowed cheeks. I was embarrassed to go out in public. I stayed in my apartment as much as possible. The last thing I would have ever done was post a video of myself for the world to see, or spend my time giving television interviews. When a couple newspapers ran photos of me, following my lawsuit’s victory, I immediately regretted having consented to it. I wasn’t doing well at the time, and in addition to being embarrassed about my appearance, I was even more concerned my underweight body would trigger others battling anorexia. I still regret those photos to this day (and I was not showing a bit of cleavage, for the record).

Even if Farrokh is on Medicare or Medi-Cal (which my lawsuit does not unfortunately apply to, ironically limiting my treatment options) – there are hospital-based, inpatient programs closer to Farrokh which take government plans and are well-trained in the delicate re-feeding process for the severely underweight. They certainly could have treated her before she reached 40 pounds.

And honestly, even if Farrokh isn’t covered in any way for Denver’s ACUTE program – there is no way anybody at that hospital is going to turn her away. For one, their Web site states explicitly that “Financial challenges or lack of health insurance should not prevent you from receiving care… Denver Health provides financial counseling to those who need it, affordable payment plans, and a health enrollment screening service that helps patients understand if they qualify for any financial assistance or discount programs available at Denver Health.”

Whether Farrokh is covered or not, whether she and her husband can work out a financial plan with Denver Health or not – even then, neither that center or any others are going to slam the door in her face. Eating disorder treatment is known to be one of the most difficult professions to work in – people join, and stay, in this field of practice because they care. They will take Rachael in no matter what.

So why are Farrokh and her husband spending their time doing television interviews, rather than in the hospital? Where exactly is all the money raised going?

Farrokh and her husband said to NBC4 last week, when they reached their donation goal that “when [Rachael] is physically able, they will go there” (to the Denver program). Excuse me, but Farrokh is never going to be physically able to do anything until she’s at Denver, or a similar program. Husband: carry your wife to your car and get her to the closest, capable hospital, NOW (UCLA’s ED unit, also trained to handle someone in her condition, is just around the corner!) – if you are really publicizing this tragedy for the reasons enumerated on your GoFundMe site.

Farrokh and her husband also conveniently failed to mention John Hopkins’ eating disorder program has been ready and willing to take them. A nurse at that program, Adrianne Whelan, wrote on their GoFundMe site, “[Our] facility takes the sickest of the sick, as we have the capability of caring for those who are medically compromised with severe anorexia. You are not a hopeless case! We can help you! Please call the admission office [here]. I have been there for 27 years and we have seen hundreds of case like you. Let us help you, please!”

So I am left extremely bewildered. What the hell is going on here? I hate to jump to conclusions, but considering that Farrokh has stated her prior profession as that of an aspiring actress, one can’t help but wonder – especially with the videos and television coverage involved – that something fishy may be afoot.

Farrokh told NBC4 she “wants to make her story public in hopes that it can help others” and “awaken [those] who are suffering from anorexia.”

Really? Or does she just want to be on TV?

That may sound cruel. And I’m sorry if it does; I feel bad for even considering it. But things simply aren’t clicking here.

In the end though – even if that were the case, as unlikely as it may be – it’s not Farrokh’s fault. She’s been taught that one of the best ways to get on TV or obtain YouTube fame – and isn’t that what so many of us have been brainwashed to believe is the only thing that makes you somebody that matters in this world, today – is to (even if you’re not one, at heart) look or act like a monster. Yes, the media, they love their “freaks,” and love to exploit their pain. They feed on it. Pun intended.

 

(UPDATE as of 5/26: Fox 31/Denver aired a story last night where the assistant medical director of the Denver ACUTE program said they are very ready and willing to take Rachael Farrokh, and that she ‘is the exact patient ACUTE was designed to treat.’ Despite this Rachael released a video this morning saying she will remain inside her home and receive treatment there, by a team ‘hand-picked’ by an unnamed doctor. Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani of Denver ACUTE said, about this plan, ‘My opinion is it is life-threateningly dangerous, to receive care of any type at home. The only hope for anyone recovering from critical anorexia is to enter into expert medical treatment immediately without hesitation… It’s pretty clear, without knowing her personally, this a tragic case. And I worry every day that she could die.’ [Here is a link to that story (it’s pretty short) for those interested: http://bit.ly/1Rl9Iqr.] As of this morning donations were at $187,000 and Farrokh’s latest video asks people to keep donating. She is also, once again – of her own volition – clad in a tank top showing off her ghastly, triggering body. Farrokch, in the video, claims her going public has helped people reduce their eating disorder behaviors when, in fact, members of online ED groups I belong to are reporting friends who say they feel they need to eat less after viewing Farrokh’s body. Many people continue to donate as I write, but there are also more and more individuals speaking out on her GoFundMe page, urging Rachael to follow Denver ACUTE’s advice, and to stop the fundraising campaign. Some commenters and donors are stating they fear this has all been a scam.)

 

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  1. National Eating Disorders Association : http://bit.ly/1LzOB0e
  2. [Image]: http://adisorderedworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/SensatiolisnOverJourno2.png

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