Everywhere you look – TV, social media, magazines, even some kids’ clothes stores – our culture is relentlessly sending out messages about women’s bodies that are toxic to young people.
I remember clearly the very first time I was exposed to this peculiar incarnation of misogyny that we now accept as the norm. It was September 1994 and I picked up a few magazines at JFK Airport to read on the journey back from my J1 summer in Cape Cod.
As my friend and I flicked through the mags – which were what is referred to as ‘supermarket magazines’ – two things struck us: we didn’t recognise any of the ‘celebrities’, and we were utterly aghast at the relentless, critical commentary on women’s bodies.
Bar one or two ‘red carpet’ spreads, all the pictures were paparazzi-style shots of women taken at the beach, in what appeared to be private moments, scantily clad. The editorial focussed exclusively on their bodies or who they were dating. It was mean and reductionist and it gave us pause. “They’d never get away with that at home,” I remember saying to my pal. She agreed.
Fast forward to today and it is ubiquitous on this side of the Atlantic too. We have our own ‘supermarket magazine’ celebrities, two of whom have been censured this week by the UK Advertising Standards Authority for cashing in on our skewed view of women’s bodies by posting ‘irresponsible’ ads on Instagram.
Katie Price, former glamour model and reality TV star, and Lauren Goodger, who featured in The Only Way Is Essex, had their posts promoting a particular brand of diet products banned. The ASA banned other posts from the brand’s own account, stating: “It was clear from the ads that the influencers did not need to lose weight in order to achieve a healthy weight.”
“The truth is,” says dietitian Orla Walsh, “if supplements are legal, they probably don’t work. If they aren’t legal, but result in weight loss, it will come at a risk to health and/or life.
“Celebrities get paid to push products that they know lack evidence for efficacy. The money they get paid for pushing these useless, and possibly dangerous products, comes from their fans’ pockets.
“Products like these are detrimental to a person’s relationship with food and their body. Celebrities should look after their fans, not put them in harm’s way for a price.”
The point made by the ASA on the fact the influencers promoting weight loss did not themselves need to lose weight is a key one.
“Our cultural obsession with weight and diets is having a hugely detrimental impact on women’s emotional health, particularly young women,” says author Louise O’Neill, who has written previously about her own experience with anorexia.
“No one starts off with the intention to develop an eating disorder, it always begins with the decision to ‘lose a few pounds’ before spiralling out of control into an all-encompassing and potentially life-threatening condition. Young women are subjected to the dangerous messaging that their worth as a human being correlates to how little space they take up in the world and we cannot allow that to continue.”
Further up the celebrity ladder from Price and Goodger, the message is subtler. More polished, certainly, although no less insidious. In a recent interview, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston revealed the secret to their youthful looks and figures: fasting for 16 hours. The ensuing coverage included a forensic look at the food they ate, and their exercise and sleep regime. The duo were touting The Morning Show, a series in which they star and also co-produced.
“Jen and I probably wouldn’t have been able to make this show 10 years ago,” said Witherspoon. “But people are taking us more seriously as creators and producers.”
That may be so Reese, but do you and Jennifer really have to reinforce our obsession with diets by answering in detail questions about how you eat to maintain the ideal body? Is that the price for getting coverage for your show?
In fairness, Witherspoon and Aniston may be more sinned against than sinning. It must be quite the struggle to maintain the acceptable Hollywood body into your 40s and 50s. But the same cannot be said for Gwyneth Paltrow. Her infamous website GOOP trades on our insecurities to sell elixirs for problems that exist only if you believe the female body is unacceptable in its natural form.
GOOP hit the headlines once again last week after the site published an article quoting a Dr Traci Mann, who advocated we should all aim for our “leanest, liveable weight”. Dr Mann is Professor of Social and Health Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Closer examination of the article reveals that what Mann is actually advocating is not at all bad – her definition of the term is “around what you weigh when you are eating sensibly – without dieting or binge-eating, and when you aren’t engaging in tons of exercise”.
It was actually sensible advice, but because we live in a culture where thinness is celebrated above all else, many were quick to point that that it makes a great slogan for disordered eating, and could be read as a challenge to get as thin as possible without losing your life.
Similary, Jennifer and Reese’s 16-hour fasting, if undertaken responsibly, may be healthy. “The evidence for the 16:8 approach isn’t concrete and requires a lot more research, but it does look promising.,” says Orla Walsh.
“Ideally, the eight-hour eating window would begin in the first half of the day to align with certain daytime hormones. However, there are certain individuals where it wouldn’t be appropriate. For example athletes, older people or those with disordered eating.”
And herein lies the rub. In this celebrity- fuelled culture that idealises bodies devoid of any obvious fat, for a lot of young women, disordered eating has become a distressing kind of normal.
“While the causes of eating disorders are complex, one of the strongest predictors of eating disorders is thin ideal internalisation, which is the extent to which a person identifies with the cultural ideal that thinness is equal to attractiveness,” says psychologist and play therapist Deirdre Cowman, whose PhD research was in the area of children’s body image.
“Our culture bombards children with the message that thin is good and fat is bad. Celebrities normalising diet culture, endorsing weight loss products and advocating for extreme weight-loss measures can contribute to this cultural ideal. Parents can help protect their children by encouraging them to question the reality behind these messages. Have conversations about how celebrities are often paid to endorse weight loss products and may be losing weight in an unhealthy and unsustainable way.”
If you are affected by any of the issues in this article, visit bodywhys.ie