Dubious Health Lessons From Reality TV

With all the bad stuff going on in the world right now, reality TV seems to exert a special escapist appeal. A few shows in particular have recently held us spellbound with their rather startling insights into women's health. In the current round of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, viewers were treated to two medical melodramas—Janice Dickinson's paralyzing bout of constipation and Heidi Pratt's painful gastric ulcer. Heidi's new sister-in-law, Stephanie Pratt from The Hills,recently confessed to bulimia triggered by insecurities about her body after watching herself on TV. On The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jacqueline Laurita allowed cameras to record a heartbreaking conversation with her obstetrician about her four miscarriages. And in the finale of the show last week, viewers were entranced watching how Teresa Giudice's new breast implants apparently turned her from frivolous to fierce (with an awesome table-flipping scene that sent ratings soaring).

All of these made great television. But it also sent some unorthodox health messages. We're not the only ones pondering questionable health information on reality TV. In 2006, researchers for the Kaiser Family Foundation reported on the positive and negative effects of shows like The Bachelor, Fear Factor, The Biggest Loser, and Extreme Makeover in a paper called "The 'Reality' of Health: Reality Television and the Public Health." Among the problems cited by authors Peter Christenson of Lewis & Clark College and Maria Ivancin of American University were the fact that these shows overemphasize the importance of physical appearance, downplay the risks of plastic surgery, and "often place contestants in situations that reward risk-taking behavior." Younger viewers, they write, may try to imitate stunts because they don't understand that the danger for contestants is tightly controlled by producers.

Maybe on some shows—but it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to imitate the action on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! The competition centers on a rather disparate band (including Patti Blagojevich, wife of the notorious former Illinois governor; actor Lou Diamond Phillips; and two Baldwin brothers) assembled in the Costa Rican "jungle" to eat bizarre food like bull testicles and to overcome such obstacles as getting out of a locked chamber rapidly filling with water. The losers subsist on a diet of rice and beans while the winners get meat, fresh fruit and vegetables. Dickinson, who bills herself as the world's first supermodel, apparently ate far more rice than beans. At one point, she complained that her insides had been blocked up for a week. Health lesson: supermodels need fiber, too.

Dickinson's castmate, newlywed Heidi Pratt (who is actually a reality meta-celebrity, since she sprang from The Hills) never seemed at home in the jungle either. Along with her husband, publicity hound extraordinaire Spencer Pratt, she generated considerable drama in the first few episodes by threatening to leave, leaving and returning, and leaving again. Frankly, it was hard to keep track. But then Heidi was reportedly vomiting convulsively, rushed to the hospital, and diagnosed with a gastric ulcer. After recuperating at home in Los Angeles, she's now apparently much better. Health lesson: when you can't take the heat, get out of the jungle.

In the meantime, Stephanie Pratt confessed to Us Weeklythat her time on The Hills made her bulimic. The trigger, Pratt said, was a March 31, 2008, scene in which she wore a horizontally striped cashmere sweater. "I was horrified," she told the magazine. "I cannot believe how huge I look … even though I was a size zero or 2." After that trauma, Pratt said she would routinely stuff her face with pizza, grilled cheese, and fries— "really good junk food"—and then vomit before the camera crews arrived. She said she felt especially bad when she compared herself with her skinny castmates' bikini-ready bods. Pratt says she's healthy now, and wants to inspire other bulimics to stop. "My dark days are over," she told us. Health lesson one: vertical stripes are slimming. Health lesson two: if you want to be a reality star, work with people much bigger than you.

On The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jacqueline Laurita left her teenage daughter in the car because she wanted to have a "private" conversation with her obstetrician. However, Laurita allowed cameras to record her tearful reaction when the doctor told her that there was no explanation for her four consecutive miscarriages and that she should just keep trying to get pregnant. At the time, the doctor didn't seem very helpful, but he turned out to be right. On June 11, Laurita gave birth to a son, Nicholas, who was apparently conceived around the time the series was filmed. Health lesson: none, really, but we're happy for her because she is our favorite housewife.

And finally, we can't ignore the amazing transformation of Laurita's castmate Teresa Giudice. In the beginning of the series, Giudice seemed rather boring despite her big hair and penchant for carrying around huge rolls of cash. The most interesting thing about her seemed to be the mystery over what her husband, Joe, did for a living. He was shown working in a bare-bones office and yet he had no problem financing their new mega-mansion, which makes the White House look like a shack. When Teresa told Joe that she wanted bigger "bubbies" (yes, she pronounced the word like she was talking about a crew of Jewish grandmothers) because her "negative A's" didn't fill out the clothes she craved, he agreed with the immortal words "Happy wife, happy life." Boosted to a C (with zero pain and recovery time—at least onscreen), she was suddenly so hot that Joe wanted to ravage her on the way home from the hospital. Then, in her cups at a dinner party, she flipped the table out of anger at bad-girl housewife Danielle Staub. Health lesson: bubbies make you bold.