Katie Couric, Lady Gaga and TLC’s "What Not to Wear" star Stacy London all have made headlines in the past several days for confessing to having an eating disorder.
Couric dropped the news in a frank conversation with Demi Lovato, a guest on her new talk show. London is promoting a book. Gaga has started an online revolution. From a strictly business perspective, it’s a boon for the media outlets that get to carry the news (irony noted), and it’s hard to not to wonder whether there’s some celebrity PR angle at play.
Whatever the behind-the-scenes struggles of the celebrities themselves—they are, after all, real people—the way the story is revealed and presented to the public creates its own set of questions and concerns.
Is the media attention good for fans (and non-fans) who are battling their own eating issues? Are there harmful repercussions being overlooked?
London told People magazine, "When you can talk about something and shine light on it, you're obliterating shame, and that to me was always the really hard part—to feel so filled with shame and having no recourse to thinking it could get better."
Chiseling away at the stigma of eating disorders on the grand stage could be an impactful way of telling others that it’s okay to talk about.
Indeed, Gaga created a movement among her fans on her LittleMonsters.com social media site that she calls the Body Revolution. After days of media scrutiny over her weight (she put on a few pounds and some very unflattering, probably doctored photos were published) she posted several snapshots of herself in just her underwear. Over the first she wrote “Bulimia and anorexia since I was 15.” Then she encouraged members of the online community to post their own pics as a way of overcoming insecurities and telling a judgmental society to back the hell off.
Other sites have given people a forum for posting pictures of themselves, and while well intentioned, YouBeauty Self-Image Expert Heather Quinlan cautions that there are complexities at work that can undermine a positive message.
“It gets very complicated when people with body image issues are posting pictures,” she says. “They look at themselves and other people and compare. But it’s not an objective, logical comparison; it’s fueled by an inherently distorted body image and it’s difficult for these people to see the reality of their own reflections. They want positive feedback, but they’re looking through a distorted lens.”
This may be as true for Lady Gaga herself as for anyone else. We can look at her pictures, stretched tall and lean in one, flaunting what many would consider an enviable derrière in another, and think, “But she looks so good. I’m supposed to feel sorry for someone who’s thinner than I am?” What we’re missing, Quinlan stresses, is that while a person with an eating disorder might be perceived as thin and beautiful, she sincerely believes she is severely overweight. I might say that Gaga looks great, but who knows what Gaga sees when she looks at her own image.
It’s crucial to recognize that mind-body disconnect. “The underlying core of the disorder is that it’s not about your body, it’s about your thoughts. It’s a brain disease with physical symptoms. It’s about thoughts and feelings and the results affect your body. That’s what’s objectively easier to see,” says Quinlan.
The true value of celebrities exposing their eating issues, she urges, is presenting the reality of those destructive thoughts and that even celluloid demigods need to ask for help sometimes. The Mother Monster has been dealing for nearly 10 years. Katie Couric said she used to beat herself up for chewing a stick of non-sugar-free gum. It’s psychological, it's nuanced and it’s never easy.
On the flipside, when Kelly Clarkson makes anorexia sound like a bad habit you can kick cold turkey, it minimizes the problem and makes individuals who struggle with eating disorders in the long term feel inadequate and powerless.
There’s a spectrum, Quinlan explains, ranging from disordered or dysfunctional eating up to full blown eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. Early on there is a point where self-awareness and a push from family and friends can be enough to help a person put a stop to self-destructive behaviors. But past that point it can be extremely hard and take a lot of work.
How do you know if you, or a close friend or relative, is heading in that direction? Quinlan offers some important red flags:
If you find yourself engaging in these worrisome behaviors, reach out to a friend or a therapist to discuss your thoughts and feelings.
Whether you struggle with body image or not, Quinlan thinks there are positive aspects of the celebrity-eating-disorder-news trend. Bringing these issues to light can be life-changing for people who are too afraid or too ashamed to talk about their own difficulties.
“Though the coverage of the celebrities and their eating disorders is not yet ideal, it’s good that the media is even paying attention to this topic,” she concludes. “It might have negative elements, but it’s not nearly as negative as the general media focus on weight loss, diet tips and bad beach bodies.”
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