'Season' a gripping film about bulimia

July 01, 1992|By Susan White | Susan White,Knight-Ridder News Service

Grace Stevens was working in a doughnut shop in Ashland, Ky., when she met Bob Hatfield, a carhop at a drive-in restaurant. Thirty-three days later they were married.

They were two country people who had grown up working hard and eating hearty. They looked forward to passing along their lifestyle to their own children someday.

But something went wrong.

The Hatfields' elder daughter, Robin, followed in the footsteps of Grace, a large woman who says that all the women in her family are large.

But Regina, the younger daughter, was different. After being rejected by a boy, she set out to make herself thin, like the models whose beguiling bodies dominate TV, billboard and magazine ads.

It's at this point that Lexington, Ky., filmmaker Walter Brock begins his documentary "A Season in Hell" -- at 10 p.m. July 20 on PBS' "POV" series -- which shows how Regina's desire to lose weight became an obsession. It is Mr. Brock's third documentary, and it has won awards at several film festivals.

Regina's descent into her own, private nightmare -- where the fear of being fat makes eating an act of torture -- should be watched by everyone who has a teen-age child or works with teen-agers. It's a gripping hour of television.

It's also a disturbing hour, because it shows so clearly the downside of our image-oriented culture.

Girls who share Regina's obsession with body image might even be able to ignore the fact that her extreme behavior caused her to be hospitalized twice, once near death. She is still thin, and for some people that might be all that counts.

"I thought maybe if I changed my package -- the way I was on the outside -- then I'll change the way I feel about myself on the inside," Regina says at the beginning of the program, as the camera focuses on her pretty face.

Layer by layer, her story is revealed. Her father talks about how Regina always "liked to do things perfectly, to be the best."

She talks about how she wrapped her legs in plastic wrap and sat in a closed car on a hot summer day to sweat off the fat.

There are family snapshots of a plump Regina before her diet and of a mannequin-like Regina 60 pounds later, after she had dieted and exercised herself into the shape she so wanted.

But the fear of growing fat again was always with her. Her craving for food increased as she continued to starve herself.

It was after a family Thanksgiving that she learned to vomit away the food she so desperately wanted. She gorged herself on her mother's cooking, looked down at her distended stomach, and then went directly to the bathroom.

"I thought, 'Man, I have found the answer to life, because I can have my cake and eat it too,' " she says.

The bingeing and vomiting -- part of an eating disorder known as bulimia -- became an integral part of her life.

Her parents, pleased to see that she was finally eating again, willingly bought the food she wanted. But the amount that she ate astonished them.

At the time they didn't know that she was vomiting the food away almost as soon as it hit her stomach.

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