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29 November 2022

The hypocrisy of Zara McDermott’s disordered eating documentary

The BBC can’t pretend a show hosted by a fitness influencer who posted restrictive meal plans on Instagram is a robust investigation.

By Zoë Grünewald

What would you say if I told you that the BBC hired an influencer who built her platform on weight-loss videos to present a documentary on the link between eating disorders and fitness content on social media? If that sounds extraordinarily tone-deaf, it’s because it is.

Zara McDermott rose to fame on the ITV dating show Love Island in 2018. Her Instagram account, with 1.7 million followers, is all bikini photos, exercise tips and worryingly restrictive meal plans – including “What I Eat in a Day” videos complete with calorie counts. McDermott documented her weight loss to her followers, offering helpful tips and tricks. Some of her advice included telling followers to “drink water” if they feel hungry and to try “spacing out their meals”. Now she has hosted the BBC Three documentary Zara McDermott: Disordered Eating.

McDermott, 25, has presented three documentaries for BBC Three as part of their desperate attempt to attract Gen Z viewers. They are on worthy topics: revenge porn, rape culture and now eating disorders. Unfortunately, the documentaries fail to explore their subjects with the rigour they deserve. Perhaps the BBC will claim that they chose McDermott to show the kind of young woman who follows her the dangers of their Instagram feed. If so the shallowness of the programme fails them. By placing McDermott at the front of this documentary, the BBC is engaging in glaring hypocrisy and exposing the cynicism of its audience strategy.

From the start, McDermott acknowledges the contradiction: she, herself, is a fitness influencer. She ponders her role in the rise of women reporting negative self-image as a result of social media. Yet McDermott dances around her culpability: she acknowledges that she edits her pictures and produces “healthy eating” content, but stops short of contrition, instead professing ignorance of the impact of her posts.

At one point she reads out messages from Instagram users that accuse her of hypocrisy. “I would hate to think that I’ve ever caused an eating disorder. I don’t want be part of the problem at all,” she says. As the documentary progresses she vaguely commits to being “more mindful” of what she’s posting, and offers some shallow, inconclusive commentary to the camera. “There is an issue here that is affecting a lot of young women in regard to how they perceive themselves,” she says. “So where is the line?”

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Then there are cringe-inducing moments that reinforce the viewer’s suspicion that this documentary is a way for McDermott to keep building her profile. There is an irrelevant montage of McDermott modelling. This is supposedly intended to expose how manufactured Instagram shoots are, but all we really see is McDermott looking beautiful, thin and glossy. At another point her boyfriend, Sam Thompson, a fellow reality TV star, inexplicably makes an appearance, offering thoughtless commentary. When McDermott ponders whether her promotion of fitness content could be deemed irresponsible, Thompson replies that there will “always be someone who is triggered by something”.

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The testimonies of interviewees with eating disorders are powerful, but they are undermined by McDermott’s ignorance. When McDermott visits a group of 15-year-old girls in an eating disorder facility, they excitedly recognise her. McDermott smiles, pleased, seemingly oblivious to the disturbing implication of why these girls, united in their disordered eating, might be familiar with who she is. They speak to McDermott about the risks of her content; one tells her that her food videos directly affected her own relationship with her body. McDermott asks them how she can be better, as if the answer isn’t obvious: stop relentlessly advertising weight loss as the ultimate life goal.

Rather than taking responsibility, McDermott treats this painful show like her own focus group. By framing the issue of eating disorders as a personal journey of growth, the documentary fails to tackle the insidiousness of it, and McDermott falls short of truly facing up to her culpability. But the viewer knows the truth. McDermott made her name from exactly the kind of thing this documentary is supposed to critique, and the BBC has let her keep doing it.

[See also: Matt Hancock is sanitising his image on I’m A Celebrity. Everyone watching is complicit]

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