Hollywood's obsession with weight is no secret. The belief that stars forgo food has become so intrinsic it's laughable. "What are you going to eat once this whole thing is over?" equally thin red carpet correspondents joke, their microphones shoved in the faces of Hollywood's biggest and skinniest A-list stars.
But, in this very public world, we're now starting to get even more access into celebrities' struggles with the pressure to keep thin. Demi Lovato, Nicole Scherzinger, Katie Couric, Lady Gaga: In the past year alone, these beautiful, thin women have announced and renounced their past struggles with food. And these pronouncements are largely met with applause. Fans and media throw out words like "brave" and "powerful," "inspiring" and "hopeful." And while those adjectives certainly do ring true, talking openly about disordered eating might just do more harm than good. "Our culture needs to think of thinness as a potential sign of disease," says Dr. Marcia Herrin, the founder of the Dartmouth College Eating Disorders Prevention, Education and Treatment Program, who now runs a private practice in New Hampshire. "And we don't, we marvel about it."
Herrin continues, "It's interesting. It's such a mixed message that they give: I used to have an eating disorder. And usually the person who is saying it is very thin. My sense is that we just assume they all have eating disorders."
We assume these stars have eating disorders — the thought itself is terrifying. We, as a society, have arrived at a place where our idols and role models on the screen are impossibly thin. (As much as the world loves Adele, stars who exemplify real-life beauty are few and far between — Dior recently felt the need to Photoshop even Jennifer Lawrence down to an unrealistic size.) And we accept, and obsess over, the fact that they're very likely physical ill.
For decades, we've discussed the media's affect on body image without fully realizing how severe the implications are. In 2002, Dr. Anne E. Becker published a revolutionary study in the British Journal of Psychiatry that states, almost unequivocally, that the portrayal of women in Western television is linked to disordered eating. For her study, Becker observed the eating habits of native Fijian adolescent girls — who statistially were less inclined to have eating disorders — before and after Western television was introduced to their society. Becker reported the eating habits and self-reported body image of 63 girls in 1995, three months after Western television became widely available in Fiji, and then another 65 three years later, in 1998. The results were astonishing.
"I think all those actors and actresses that they show on TV, they have a good figure and so I, I would like to be like them... since the characters [on Beverly Hills 90210] are slimbuilt, [my friends] come and tell me that they would also like to look like that. So they change their mood, their hairstyles, so that they can be like those characters... so in order to be like them, I have to work on myself, exercising and my eating habits should change," one participant in the study reported to Becker's team. Another put it bluntly, "[TV viewing] affects me because sometimes I feel fat." And this in a society where curvy, fuller-figured women have traditionally been viewed as more beautiful.
The most unnerving part of Becker's study is that these adolescent girls come to decide that in order to be successful they must be thin. In fact, a whopping 40 percent of subjects stated their desire to lose weight in order to get better career prospects. And this is where public eating disorder confessions become problematic. You can't help but feel conflicted when Couric, a woman who has not only had an incredibly successful career in front of the camera but also appears no bigger than a size 8, says on her own talk show, "I wrestled with bulimia all through college and for two years after that. And I know this rigidity, this feeling that if you eat one thing that’s wrong, you’re full of self-loathing and then you punish yourself, whether it’s one cookie or a stick of gum that isn’t sugarless, that I would sometimes beat myself up for that." After all, it was during this time of turmoil that Couric began to move ahead in her career. Similarly, Lady Gaga, who admittedly has struggled with "bulimia and anorexia since [she] was 15," not only skyrocketed to fame at her smallest size, but still claims to have a complicated relationship with food.
We look up to these women for their strength in dealing with these issues, and yet Gaga — along with the previously mentioned Scherzinger and Lovato (who claims to have developed her first weight issues when she was just three years old) — still weighs less than the average healthy American woman. (Admittedly, Couric is a fit, healthy size.) "The part I'm a little worried about with everyone coming out like this is the idea of, 'So, if I do it for a while it's okay,'" says Dr. Judith Brisman, Director and Founder of the Eating Disorder Resource Center in Manhattan. "And I think that's the concern I have, they may go, 'Look how thin it made her.'"
For every young girl who might be inspired to seek help after hearing celebrity confessions (no doubt, the reason why stars like Couric and Gaga admit to their struggles in the first place), another could use their words as a guidebook to develop their own eating disorder. "For the person who has the temperament, the kind of genetic predisposition, when they hear that story they say, 'I knew it took an eating disorder to get there, and I'm not going to believe that you can be okay and love yourself without being that thin,'" says Keesha Broome, licensed marriage and family therapist and Clinical Director at the Monte Nido center for eating disorders and exercise addiction. "So we have to look at each person and see that some people have a strong enough sense of self or whatnot to not take it to that place, but many people don't. And they don't have any other voice that is kind of counteracting that for them."
So it falls to not only the parents and counselors, but also to the public figures to be this "other voice" — to not only dissuade girls from developing an eating disorder in the first place, but to show them the path to recovery if that becomes necessary. And the way to do this, Herrin, Broome, and Brisman all agree, is to shift the conversation from the disorder to the recovery process. "My hope would be that these celebrities can come out and talk about it and inspire people to get help, rather than perhaps portray it as something that's a phase or something that is, you wake up one day and you've grown out of it, or that type of thing," Broome says. "So my hope is that that is what people will take from it: that you can get better."
Adds Herrin, "Often when people in the limelight talk about the recovery they don't talk about being in treatment. Some have, but many are just, 'I'm recovered.' Well, if it was a real eating disorder, it is extremely rare for anyone to recover without treatment. So, what did they do to get better? That's the important thing. And how are they protecting themselves from relapsing?"
The celebrities, who are subject to the effects of the media's editing machine even more than magazine subscribers are — they are the ones, after all, who must watch themselves on screen and see the effects of Photoshop on their bodies in magazines — are not the ones at blame here. Especially beacuse, as Brisman points out, eating disorders and food issues in general are often entangled with ideas of shame and guilt. And this, she says, is the real difficulty in speaking openly about the recovery process, which is much more embarrassing and difficult than stars make it out to be. "My concern is that no one is talking in depth about the real struggle of recovery," she says. "And the most interesting psychological issue regarding eating disorders is it's all about really messy, dirty, uncomfortable feelings and finding a way to just sit with things that feel really uncomfortable. Somehow the second these things get talked about, they get glamorized. And even recovery gets cleaned up. It's very hard to talk about shame and failure without cleaning it up, again, as soon as the media comes in."
While Couric did discuss feeling self-loathing while struggling with bulimia, she neglected to discuss how she took the big step to recovery, or how if felt when she did. And while Gaga's "Body Revolution" — a trend she started on her website, LittleMonsters.com, to encourage fans to share their body insecurities and find acceptance through the group's support and encouragement — is commendable and empowering for many young girls, it's disheartening to hear that thus far she still hasn't come to fully accept her own body. That said, she at least seems to be aware of her struggles, and is taking steps to overcome them. And if Gaga is willing to seek help for her admitted disorder and share the recovery process with her fans, it could be enough to start a real body revolution, off of the web and in the real world. It could, like Brisman states, show what the road to recovery is really like: emotional, embarrassing, difficult, and real. And what could be more inspiring than that?
Today may mark the final day of 2013's National Eating Disorder Awareness week, but the name may be a bit of a misnomer. We seek awareness of the disorder, sure, but it may be more important to become aware of the recovery process. Should we start marking a National Eating Disorder Recovery Awareness week on our calendars? "Something that we talk about in treatment is we don't let the clients just sit around together and reminisce about what they did in their eating disorder and swap stories about how horrible it was, because that serves to perpetuate that idea that this is how we connect, about how bad life is, and we want to compete on that level," Broome says. "Everyone with an eating disorder, they get focused on being the sickest, so I always ask them, 'Why don't you want to walk into a room and try to be the healthiest person there?'"
What can we do, as a culture, to make that the central question?
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