When Jane Fonda revealed in her 1981 "Workout Book" that she had suffered bulimia for 23 years, the public became aware of the compulsive eating disorder. Now bulimia has become the focus of an NBC-TV movie, "Kate's Secret," which airs Monday.
"I didn't know if I wanted to be the one throwing up on television," said Meredith Baxter-Birney, who as Elyse Keaton of "Family Ties" is one of television's model mother figures. However, Birney's investigation of bulimia prompted her to take on the role of Kate, whose secret eating habits threaten her marriage and her life.
"I hope people won't say, 'Oh, another one of those women's pictures,' " Birney said protectively. "We want to cross that line and get men to watch 'Kate's Secret' and not think, 'Stupid broads. It's all about being skinny.'
"That's not what bulimia is about, although it's an element. Bulimia is about anger, hostility, loss, insecurity, lack of control and seizing control when you're binging and purging. A mentally healthy person has control over most areas of her life. But binging and purging are the only things a bulimic can control in his or her life, and they do such terrible violence to the body."
Birney spoke authoritatively about a disorder that affects an estimated 2 million Americans and their families. But just six months ago she knew virtually nothing about it. "Bulimia is very private," she said. "Most people don't discuss it with anybody. Yet, treatment for this disorder is very helpful."
Birney read a lot of case histories, interviewed bulimics and spoke extensively with Dr. Murray Zucker, an eating-disorder specialist at Northridge Medical Center who served as the program's medical adviser.
"I felt a real responsibility to do this movie right," Birney said. "You can make a big impact on screen. You earn credibility, deserved or not, and that carries into some of the projects you do. Because of that, you want to make sure you're doing it right so as to not misinform or misguide."
Although a mother of five, Birney, 38, still gets letters saying, " 'You're not old enough to play the mother on 'Family Ties,' " she said with a chuckle. "I certainly am."
Birney did become a mother early--at 19. When her marriage broke up a few years later, she began acting to support her two children. Show business had been the family business. Her mother, actress Whitney Blake, co-starred on "Hazel." Her stepfather, Jack Fields, is an agent.
She met her second husband, actor David Birney, 15 years ago on the "Bridget Loves Bernie" series. The Birneys had three more children, Kate, 11, and twins Peter and Mollie, 2.
On this particular day, the twins came with their nanny to visit Mom at work, but she was too busy to spend more than a few minutes with them. While they lunched elsewhere, Birney sat in her Paramount dressing room with a plate of spinach souffle and a strong desire to tell "Kate's Secret."
"The idea of eating and purging was foreign to me," she said, "but the buttons pushed emotionally I understood. That made me more sympathetic. I always think about weight. Being in a job that's visible, I'm conscious of how I look. I don't want to be fat, and I do have a tendency to put on weight. I started running to control it.
"Running redefined my body. I remember saying to someone, 'I'm not afraid of food any more.' Running became my way of controlling my weight." Birney runs in marathons, training seriously, but is "not nearly as compulsive about running as I used to be."
As Birney launched into a full-bodied account of her athletic routine, Scott Valentine (Nick of "Family Ties") knocked on her dressing room door. Would she like to meet his new baby? Yes, she'd even like to hold him. A few coos later, another baby appeared. He belonged to a "Family Ties" crew member. Birney couldn't resist cuddling him, too. Then Michael J. Fox dropped in to hear his TV mom give a few mothering tips to the new parents.
The casting of blonde, blue-eyed Birney as a bulimic wife and mother may surprise audiences who will not expect to see such a wholesome-looking woman stuff her face with food. However, Birney described her character as a "typical textbook bulimic case."
"Kate doesn't think she has the love and attention of her husband. When she was a child, her father went to the market one day and never came back. Her mother said it was because Kate wasn't a good girl. Now Kate has created that cycle again with her husband. Her fear is that he'll leave her if she's not perfect.
"Without being terribly graphic, some of the scenes will be off-putting," Birney said. "You're not going to see me vomiting, but you'll have no question what activity I'm in the midst of.
"Bulimia isn't about hunger. It's about filling a hole. It's a very private, semi-sensual experience. You're trying to make yourself feel better through oral satisfaction. You're not able to get food in fast enough. I read about bulimics who tend to choke because they don't take time to chew.
"At one point Kate's very upset. So after a dinner party she eats up all the leftovers. I asked a bulimic, 'Would this happen?' She said, 'Oh yes, I've done this.' That's 15 or 20 pounds of food. You extend your stomach so much you look pregnant."
Birney shuddered over the memory. "The eating was real hard, much harder than I ever imagined. I had no concept of what it would be like. I wanted to do it as fast as I could to get it over with. I remember gagging terribly. I'd drop out of frame and spit up in a bucket.
"I was so embarrassed. I couldn't look at anyone. I knew what I was doing was gross and disturbing and so degrading."
But she believes it was worth it.
"If we've done our job well, this movie will be very disturbing to watch."