It’s no secret. I love Parks & Rec. At different moments in my life the show has played the role of conversation starter, pick-me-up, inspiration, and life coach (often simultaneously). The moment a co-worker compared me to Leslie Knope was the moment I first began to enjoy my job. When a friend told me I might try being Ann and dating myself for a while, I clapped my hands and told him he was a genius. Even my mom uses Parks references to dole out sage advice these days. When my brain is overtired or stricken with insomnia, I can count on Parks to provide exactly the right dose of funny, sweet, and familiar. I love it and I like it, okay?
One of the show’s greatest strengths is its multitude of characters. Most people can find a reason to like it because the characters are, like us, so incredibly various. Older, younger, emotional, stoic, nerdy, misanthropic, genial, single, married, divorced, pessimistic, optimistic… What is so amazing to me is that, despite being such a motley crew, the cast is not repeatedly set against each other to generate laughs. The humor comes from within the characters themselves and what each of them brings to the conference table. There’s also no creepy laugh-track punctuating every sentence. (I’m looking at you, Chuck Lorre.)
The point is, Parks & Rec means different things to different people, and most people can see themselves reflected in the story in some way or another. This has led to a plethora of online articles about how Parks is good for nerds and millennials and women and men and gay people and bipartisanship and puppies and…okay, you get it. One article that I have yet to unearth, though, is an article about how Parks provides a unique take on eating disorders. I’m talking, of course, about Chris Traeger.
When Chris first enters the scene, his energy is overwhelming. He is a wide-eyed lunatic with an in-your-face optimism that is, frankly, more bewildering than funny. Even as he starts to break down in later seasons, his emotions are still extreme, and I would often find myself cringing during his scenes. It’s just as awkward seeing a grown man cry as it is to see one uncontrollably happy. Blame the patriarchy and the cult of masculinity, but it was hard for me to swallow at first. It just didn’t seem to fit into an otherwise seamless show.
The episode that really changed my opinion on Chris was “Ron & Diane,” and it might be one of my overall favorites. Every character has a chance to shine. Ron is unbelievably giddy at a woodworking convention; Leslie performs her duties as emotional guardian valiantly; Ben and Chris hang out again; we meet Jerry’s gorgeous family; Ann is awkward; Donna takes charge of a situation…really, it’s Parks & Rec gold.
At this point in the series, Chris has already been established as a health and fitness nut. He meditates, prefers kale, takes supplements, and is rarely seen sitting still. At this point in the series, Chris has also been rather unlucky in love, felt isolated from his friends, and started seeing a therapist. In this episode, Chris and Ben are hanging out for the first time in a while, and they decide to go to Jerry’s Christmas party together. Hilarious hijinks ensue, but the party also happens to be full of triggers for Chris. His ex-girlfriend(s) are there; holiday food is fattening; Jerry’s wife makes a remark about a grey hair she finds on his shirt. When Ben (who has his own emotional guardian role to play) notices that Chris is drinking the regular eggnog rather than the non-fat eggnog, he cautiously informs his friend and reassures him that one glass won’t kill him.
“No,” Chris responds, “but it will add exactly 400 calories.”
That line gets me every time. The manicness with which Chris approaches situations is meant to be a humorous exaggeration. The way he so completely throws himself into events and emotions is sweet and silly, but, under it all, a very real problem starts to develop. His relationship to his body, food, and exercise becomes unhealthy. It begins in a light-hearted way. He has funny goals (to live to be 150 years old, to run to the moon), and it seems like it’s all just a part of his crazy, finger-pointing, full-name optimism. As the series progresses, his passion turns into a compulsion. It begins to negatively affect his interactions with other people and his presence during important moments. He obsessively controls his body and mind with supplements, and he literally runs from tough situations. This isn’t just absurd comedy. To some extent, this is real life.
Back to the Christmas party. Chris shrugs off the full-fat nog and the grey hair pretty honorably, but when his ex-girlfriend Millicent enters the scene with her young, handsome fiancee, you can see him starting to fall into his old habits. Despite being okay with the 400 calories, it’s clear that he’s been at least thinking about them for most of the night. As he leaves the happy couple, he informs them with a tense air of forced camaraderie: “There’s fat in the egg nog.”
I love this for a lot of reasons. I love this because it simultaneously shows the progress Chris has made and his continuing struggle. Going to therapy a thousand times a day hasn’t been an insta-cure, but it has provided him with the toolkit to proactively deal with situations like this. There is a difference between eating kale because you like it and knowing exactly how many calories are in the food you’re eating. There is a difference between running because it makes you feel good and knowing the exact pace and mileage you need to burn off those calories. There is a difference, and, for some people, that difference takes practice.
I love this because it represents a different side to the eating disorder trope on television, which is maybe why no one has written about it. Maybe no one has noticed. (Which, by the way, is how many peoples’ eating disorders become so serious. No one notices because they show different signs than what we are trained by the media to identify.) Chris Traeger is not a young, female professional athlete. His life is not a soap opera or sports drama. He’s just a middle-aged government guy who smiles a lot, does races for charity, and likes local produce. He doesn’t have anorexia or bulimia. He’s not overly thin and weak. He’s actually quite strong, so he isn’t what our minds conjure when we think of a person with an eating disorder, and that is precisely why I think this story arc matters.
I love that he seeks help, and that even something as serious as depression is easily incorporated into the show’s comedy. I love that he is not ashamed, and that his friends stick by him. I love that the viewer is allowed to see beyond the disorder, and I love that, in the end, Chris gets to grow into the caring, passionate, happy person he was always meant to be.
“You know, the old Chris would have loved this super-fit health goddess you guys are talking about, but our great adventure reminded me that, now, I just want someone who values the important things in life. Friendships, passion, happiness, and…dimples are a plus.”
This is a really important subject for me, and Chris Traeger’s story arc is so heartening, because I’ve been there. My positive passion for exercise and eating healthy, combined with various outside factors, once became a negative thing very quickly and very quietly. It affected my emotions, academics, friendships, and even, ironically, my passion for exercise and eating healthy. The struggle continues, to some extent, but I am optimistic that, someday, I too can find the important things that give my life meaning.
I’m making this post, in part, to add to the noise and praise yet another aspect of Parks & Rec, but I’m also making this post because National Eating Disorder Awareness Week begins at the end of February. The theme for 2015 is “I Had No Idea.” Every year, millions of people will struggle with disordered eating, unbeknownst to their friends, family, colleagues–even themselves–because their story does not match what we’ve been programmed to recognize. It’s nice to see (intentional or not) a different take on such a widely popular show. Great job, Parks. Great job, Chris. Great job.
This has been a pop-culture appreciation post, but to make up for the lack of citations and statistics to back my thesis, here are a few articles I’ve read recently: