petite actresses with gargantuan appetites

Posted in celebrities, gender, magazines, media, popular culture | 4 Comments »

Every once in a great while, a piece of writing comes along that conveys to a hilt some inner sentiment you’ve always had but were sure was unique unto you. Such instances are pure magic, and it happened to me with the Feb. 15 New York Times commentary For Actresses, Is a Big Appetite Part of the Show? by Jeff Gordinier.

The context of my sublime moment was the familiar sit-down magazine interview with a female celebrity on the cusp of the release of her next movie or album. The scene seems innocuous enough, but after the perfunctory headline is out of the way, it happens, seemingly always: “The starlet, usually of slim and gamine proportions, appears to thwart our expectations by ordering and consuming, with conspicuous relish, a meal that might satisfy a hungry dockworker,” Gordinier writes.

As a magazine enthusiast, I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened up Glamour, Cosmo or some other women’s mag with a beautiful, stylish, thin female celebrity on the cover hoping to read something about what makes her tick (or at least what’s in her Netflix queue). Instead, I’m informed outright that this gorgeous, impeccably fit woman always orders the jumbo stack of pancakes or loves her some mac and cheese.

The a-ha moment for me came when Gordinier explained that one Hollywood insider has actually coined a phrase for such occurrences of overt gastro indulgence: the “DIPE,” or “documented instance of public eating.” In other words, these frequent displays of decadent dining are no coincidence, and I wasn’t hung up on them because I’m perhaps more struck than the average person by a markedly featherweight actress claiming she never passes up extra bacon on her double cheeseburger. We’re all supposed to notice.

Unlike Gordinier, I never questioned the DIPE. I would instead think, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not able to eat like that and look like that?” I think this mindset is quite common among people with eating disorders. “This is normal,” I would tell myself of any given DIPE. “I’m clearly the weird one for not being able to feast fearlessly on any and all food and still be a size 0 and have a $1 million CoverGirl contract. After all, every magazine interview with every female celebrity can’t be wrong.”

I fell for the DIPE without qualification.

I’ve found throughout the years that so many of the media influences that make me insecure about my body are really pushing some other agenda. Most often it’s to sell me something — and with the DIPE, it’s selling an idea. “Ultimately, the DIPE is meant to convey that a starlet is relaxed, approachable and game,” Gordinier writes.

And why shouldn’t she be? And why shouldn’t we believe that she is? The problem arises in that publicists, journalists and the stars themselves think the way to convince us of this is to have the star chow down with abandon on foods one would think off-limits for a skinny, successful, desirable woman. The disconnection in this logic is abrasive.

“Any individual DIPE may not shed much light on the inner life of the latest actress,” Gordinier writes. “But collectively, their frequency seems to tell us something about societal standards, judgments and yearnings.” If food, size, weight and appearance weren’t so central to our culture and to our evaluation of female beauty and, ultimately, female worth, perhaps the DIPE wouldn’t exist. And maybe we could actually glean something practical and — dare I say it! — inspiring from the ladies in these magazine articles.

Illustration by Michael C. Wittee, from The New York Times

kids and weight: walking the obesity/eating disorders tightrope

Posted in children, eating disorders, government, health, obesity, weight loss | 1 Comment »

To much fanfare, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the national Let’s Move! campaign in February 2010, planting a government-sanctioned spotlight on kids’ nutrition and unleashing a blitzkrieg of initiatives aimed at tackling childhood obesity, taking its lunch money and rubbing its face in the mud out by the swing set.

A touch more eloquently, the Let’s Move! website describes the program as having “an ambitious national goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.”

With one-third of Americans ages 2 to 19 classified as obese, the mission of Let’s Move! and other kids’ health crusades is an estimable (if conspicuously lofty) one.

But simultaneous with the mainstream touting of “childhood obesity” as a veritable national crisis — an “epidemic” that merits mentioning in any and every news article about health or food in the United States — a significant number of American children are developing eating disorders, and this fact, no matter how much less face time it gets on the evening news, is equally as troubling.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in January, David S. Rosen, professor of internal medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Michigan, said the U.S. government published data in 2009 showing individuals under the age of 12 were the fastest-growing population of patients being hospitalized for eating disorders.

“Many of us believe that the focus on obesity prevention, especially with young children, has had the unintended consequence of increasing eating disorders in susceptible individuals,” Rosen said. “Some younger kids handle the nutrition messages in ways that are too rigid, inflexible, and that get them into trouble.”

While outright anorexia and bulimia may be relatively uncommon, Rosen said many people who have eating disorders don’t have symptoms that meet the strict criteria necessary for one of those clinical diagnoses, but their conditions (known as “subthreshold” eating disorders) are nonetheless serious and potentially life threatening.

“We should start to be concerned when children express weight concerns, when they talk about or start diets, or if their activity level suddenly rises outside of usual recreational or athletic activities,” Rosen said.

But through the lens of Let’s Move!, wouldn’t what Rosen describes be acceptable — even encouraged — behavior?

Something is wrong here. We must find a way to convey the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle to kids without creating a confusing panic around the body like we currently are — pushing a rigid, polarizing, one-size-fits-all prescription for health that is to some extent founded on hyped nutritional myths and misinformation.

We must be mindful, too, not to deem that the “cure” to childhood obesity is simply to eat less and sign up for indoor soccer. Children who are obese are rarely so just because they eat too much, and obesity’s link to inactivity isn’t as substantiated as it has been portrayed. In come factors such as family income, location, class, genetics — complex variables that don’t so easily fit within the equation Let’s Move! and society in general seems to be trusting to solve “the challenge of childhood obesity.”

Clinical psychologist Edward Abramson suggests a possible solution to the conundrum may be to disregard weight loss as a goal when it comes to talking with children about health and nutrition, and to instead just encourage healthy eating and enjoyable physical activity sans mention of calories or pounds. “The concern about juvenile obesity is thoroughly justified,” Abramson writes. “But unless approached with sensitivity, well-intentioned interventions can have negative consequences.”

new year, same body hang-ups

Posted in advertising, magazines, media, weight loss | 1 Comment »

People magazine’s annual “Half Their Size” issueWith every New Year comes a reliable deluge of obnoxious diet ads, “news” stories about how to blast away all of the fat camouflaging the “real” you, and pandemic diligence from somewhere on high that commands we all drop whatever we’re doing and take inventory of our bodies.

Because the New-You-for-the-New-Year weight loss message is so ubiquitous, remembering that revenue is the driving force behind the whole circus can be difficult. But yes, any media mention of weight loss isn’t actually about helping you at last make good on that years’-old resolution. It’s all about the benjamins.

According to Marketdata Enterprises, the three leading weight loss companies — Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers — raked in an estimated $3.2 billion in revenue in 2010. This year, I’ve spotted some clever spins on the standard weight loss ad campaign that seem aimed at exploring less-charted territories of potential dieters, such as an infomercial for a Christian-oriented diet and exercise plan and a TV spot for Applebee’s featuring young men ordering from the calorie-conscious menu. Many companies that have products unrelated to food or weight still find a way to capitalize on our New Year body neuroses. People magazine’s annual “Half Their Size” issue, for example, isn’t a beginning-of-the-year staple because celebrities decide to lie low during the first week of every New Year.

For me, the flood of “I-once-was-fat-but-now-am-found” testimonials in commercials and elsewhere this time of year is far more bothersome than the hundreds of pages of emaciated models I’m sure to encounter in magazines throughout 2011. Fashion models, at least, aren’t typically presented as an attainable, meaningful ideal for which average people should strive.

Most of all, I feel sad for the millions of people who will base their self-worth on the effectiveness of some mail-order meal plan or ab-blasting apparatus — and spend quite a bit of money to do so — only to have a good chance of finding themselves back at the start in 2012. To keep profits in the billions year after year, weight loss companies surely can’t bank on having no repeat customers.

And so, January after January, the same media-incited hypnosis will continue to zap many Americans into a hyper-aware state of food and their bodies that’s eerily akin to an eating disorder. As weight loss evangelism surges throughout these first few months of 2011, can we remind ourselves that money fuels the entire frenzied machine? Can we disengage and realize that the message to “lose weight” this time of year really has nothing to do with how we should view ourselves, set our priorities or expend our energy? It’s just a part of a business model — just a sentiment to be capitalized upon in true American commercial spirit, like Valentine’s Day, Christmas and anything else that calls for big banners and blocks of aisles at Walmart.

eating disorder reality TV show gripping, enlightening

Posted in eating disorders, firsthand stories, television | 2 Comments »

“People think you can just stop this, because it’s not an actual drug, like crack. But you can’t survive without food. So how do you get better, when your drug you can’t eliminate totally?” — Andrew, 23, Brooklyn, N.Y.

I wasn’t sure how much value I would find in What’s Eating You, the E! network’s reality show about people with severe eating disorders. I was worried the series — eight one-hour episodes profiling two people per episode — would portray individuals with eating disorders as hopelessly mentally ill, or, perhaps worse, as perfectly fine people who are simply vain and willful.

But the openness of participants like Andrew, a floppy-haired 23-year-old New Yorker with a shy smile, gentle disposition and rampant bulimia, gave the show a heartstrings-tugging sincerity that not only disarmed my preconceptions, but had me emotionally hooked.

I liked that What’s Eating You didn’t focus solely on young, white anorexic women — the stereotypical eating disorder sufferer — but spotlighted binge eaters, men, mothers, people of different races, people in their 30s and 40s. This diversity showed the gamut of life circumstances in which eating disorders can arise, and thus just how widespread and insidious they are.

I also liked that not all of the people featured were sympathetic. I at times found several of them to be frustrating, irrational, dramatic, whiny — likely how anyone who is close to someone with an eating disorder feels about the person on a daily basis.

Some commentators were concerned that What’s Eating You would negatively represent people with eating disorders by showing only extreme cases, exaggerating the illness for the sake of viewers’ entertainment.

The most extreme examples typically have the strongest impact, however, and when you have only an hour, minus commercial time, to give a face and a voice to a disease as complex and befuddling as any, intense, more-dire-than-the-norm examples are not only warranted, but are necessary, in my opinion.

Some other standout stories:

Amanda, a 21-year-old with extreme bulimia whose binge eating was physically uncomfortable to watch. In a session with her therapist, Amanda declares bluntly, “I’d rather die than be fat.”

Claudine, who suffers from an eating disorder known as pica, subsists almost entirely on white chalk, an eating habit that was triggered by severe trauma in her childhood.

Mona, a former chart-topping singer who went from binge eater to bulimic following gastric bypass surgery. Her resolve is inspiring, her story triumphant.

Adrienne, a terrifyingly skinny professional dancer whose laments that she is “fat” are so obviously ludicrous that they become infuriating to listen to. But, as the episode unfolds, viewers can see Adrienne’s mind is so diseased that she honestly doesn’t see her body as thin, let alone deathly so.

Check out the What’s Eating You YouTube page for more clips from the show.

lady gaga: does she have an eating disorder?

Posted in celebrities, eating disorders, popular culture | 1 Comment »

Since her arrival on pop culture’s radar in 2008, Lady Gaga has sold more than 15 million albums, dazzled with her bizarre fashion and over-the-top performances, been praised as an avant-garde entertainer, drawn criticism as being just a Madonna rip-off, and done it all shadowed by suspicions of an eating disorder.

Lady Gaga

The claims aren’t surprising, given the outlandish songstress’s get-ups leave little of her body to the imagination, and what isn’t shrouded in lace, sequins and the occasional cuts of meat is undeniably very thin.

The rumors have never gained much steam, however — perhaps because they’re untrue, but perhaps also because, with her unabashed eccentricity and larger-than-life fame, the individualistic, otherworldly Gaga seems invulnerable to such a human toil. How could Lady Gaga fall victim to something we mere mortals struggle with?

In a new biography of the pop sensation, Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga by Maureen Callahan, Gaga’s former tour manager, David Ciemny, says the star has an eating disorder and was hospitalized at least six times throughout 2009. Ciemny describes Gaga as “physically and mentally” sick, saying she would binge on unhealthy foods and then starve herself for weeks to fit into her outfits.

A costumer who worked with the singer in 2009 told ABC News in September: “From the first time we met her and measured her and checked her for the final [ensembles], she’d lost 20 pounds. She self-proclaimed that she didn’t eat for weeks to fit into the clothes.”

A compelling facet of the Lady Gaga/body image saga is the singer’s outspokenness about gay rights, and about acceptance, self-empowerment and self-confidence in general. Her mantra of “be who you are and be proud” is inconsistent with her own actions, as she is notoriously secretive about her life pre-Gaga — pre-fame and pre-glam — and music industry insiders have said the singer, born Stefani Germanotta in New York in 1986, created her kooky image after record label bigwigs told her she wasn’t attractive enough to be successful in the biz.

“To me, she’s one of the biggest contradictions, ever,” Poker Face author Maureen Callahan told ABC News.

None of us on the outside of Lady Gaga’s world looking in can say for sure whether she has an eating disorder — what goes on in her head, what motivates her, what she fears. I think Lady Gaga publicly discussing the pressures and struggles she has faced regarding her appearance would give a new depth to the oft-exhausted and thus easily overlooked celebrities-with-eating-disorders story line. But that’s the thing: Discussing it would mean Lady Gaga would be a little more ordinary, a little bit more like the rest of us. Would we like her as much then? Would we be empathetic? Would she wield us so fascinated then, if the same insecurities and obsessions that bedraggle us were to bedraggle her too?

Tell me what you think about Lady Gaga in terms of body image. Would her admitting to struggling with an eating disorder change your opinion of her? In what way?