Health knowledge made personal
Join this community!
› Share page:
Search posts:

Ads, outrage, and eating disorders

Posted Dec 14 2009 6:23pm
Several weeks ago, there was a massive to-do over a horrifically Photoshopped image of a Ralph Lauren model. Boing Boing said it best: "Dude, her head is bigger than her pelvis!" And in the image, indeed it was. Ralph Lauren later fired the model, Filippa Hamilton, for being too fat, even though she's a size 4. Last week, documentary filmmaker Darryl Roberts (he directed the movie "America the Beautiful") was supposed to have appeared on Larry King Live until the people at Ralph Lauren allegedly had the segment pulled. Now, the America the Beautiful Action Group has created a Facebook page encouraging people to boycott Ralph Lauren.

I have not joined this Facebook group for a variety of reasons, one being the fact that I never bought any of his stuff anyway, so my boycott of the company would have precisely zero effect on their bottom line. The other major reason is that I really, really, truly dislike how negative ads like Ralph Lauren's are conflated with causing eating disorders.

In an open letter to Ralph Lauren, Roberts writes that:

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting tens of thousands of young girls while promoting my documentary “America the Beautiful.” To look in the eyes of over 100,000 college women and hear their pain (body image, self-esteem) has been an experience that I will never forget. I’ve also heard from over 80,000 parents that are in pain because they have to hear from their sons and daughters in pain. It does truly become a generational cycle.

I’m sure that you’re fully aware that a lot of the American population feels that the unhealthy ads in magazines are damaging to women. The damage comes in various forms; body image problems, low self-esteem and for some of the women, they get a full blown eating disorder like your niece Jenny.


Believe it or not, [adults and parents] get hurt as much as the young girls that read the magazines and look at the ads. “How? You wonder.” When a young girl reads these ridiculous fashion magazines and gets triggered into a full blown eating disorder, who do you think gets left holding the bag for the $30,000 a month treatment? I’ve met parents that have had their entire savings wiped out and some have taken out second mortgages on their homes to pay for the treatment of their young daughters.

Although Roberts says that he was told by an ED expert that 50-80% of the risk for developing an eating disorder is genetic, the message here is clear.

I'm all in favor of supporting a boycott for Ralph Lauren because he's engaging in false advertising (which is what I think the dramatically altered images really are), for being denigrating towards women, or for just being a douchebag. All of these are quite possibly true.

All of these have NOTHING to do with eating disorders.

Yes, our thin-is-in culture plays a role in triggering eating disorders, but the holy-is-in culture played a role in triggering eating disorders during the Middle Ages. I'm not saying that we should support or participate in this culture (it's damaging even if you exclude any triggered eating disorders), but we can also oppose it for reasons that have nothing to do with EDs.

Writes Sue Sierralupe of the Oregon Natural Health Examiner:

The National Organization for Women (NOW) is one of the many organization demanding a change in advertising policies that encourage eating disorders. NOW has prioritized encouraging women's self esteem with Body awareness education, "Love your Body Day" and a posting of ads offensive to women and ads that are supportive of women. NOW has asked Ralph Lauren to apologize encouraging unrealistic body images that lead to eating disorders.

...Most cases of anorexia and bulimia are symptoms of unhealthy self esteem. According to the Women's Center for Healthy Living (WCHL), "Anorexia and bulimia are characterized in part by a refusal to eat and repeated attempts at dieting. Even if individuals suffering from anorexia or bulimia are a normal weight, their body images are distorted, causing them to continually attempt weight loss. The thought process of those suffering from anorexia or bulimia is that if they only weighed a certain number, life would be "good" and they would feel good about themselves. The truth is that weight cannot and does not determine your self-esteem or self-worth."

Which is pretty much bass-ackwards. I don't oppose NOW for trying to promote women's health by ads that aren't sexist and offensive. I rather think that's a good idea. But EDs aren't just a feminist "up yours" to the patriarchy done in a nice feminine way. They're an illness.

Many people with EDs have a history of low self-esteem because they also suffered from perfectionism, and nothing saps your self-esteem like the feeling that you are never good "enough." Yet the one thing that absolutely wrecked my self-esteem was my eating disorder. The truly pitiful self-esteem happened after; it wasn't great before, but it wasn't literally and metaphorically in the toilet, either. EDs aren't about the vapid pursuit of an ever-decreasing weight. They're about scrambled neurotransmitters, about how ED symptoms can help mediate feelings of anxiety and depression, they're about genetics, and a vicious cycle that doesn't seem to stop. Furthermore, the symptoms of body dysmorophia and "feeling fat" are a relatively recent phenomenon- they weren't consistently present before the 1800s, and didn't comprise a majority of AN cases until into the 1900s.

Ultimately, Sarah Ravin said it best: this focus on EDs as just really extreme body image dissatisfaction "trivializes the anguish that eating disordered people experience."
Post a comment
Write a comment: