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Eating disorders, body image and perfectionism

Posted Feb 13 2010 2:18pm

Are actors and other performers at greater risk for body image issues and eating disorders than people who are not “in the spotlight”? Maybe.

What has interested me in this topic over the years is how many highly talented women – especially actors – have talked about having body issueseating disorders now or in their teensand about the pressures in the entertainment industry to have the “right” lookand how that pressure relates to self esteem and to the dark side of striving for perfection.

What got me interested in all this again was psychotherapist Isabella Mori’s [@moritherapy] post eating disordersdepression and perfectionism. She notes that Therese Borchard [in her book Beyond Blue] quotes from Cherry Boone O’Neill’s memoirStarving for Attention :

“In my early years I equated my worth as a person with the level of my performance and I felt that the love and approval of other people would be conditional upon my perfection.

“ThereforeI expanded every effort to be the best I could possibly be in any given area of endeavoronly to repeatedly fall short of my goals and risk losing value in the eyes of others. Trying even harderonly to miss the mark againand againresulted in compounded guilt and self-hatred.”

The image above is actor and entrepreneur Mary-Kate Olsen – hospitalized a few years ago for anorexia. Most of the references in this post are to womenand a page by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Anorexia says 85 – 95 percent of anorexics are female.

Personality traits

Psychologist Dr. Jenn Berman notes“Psychological experts have found that many of the personality traits which make children great athletes or performers are the very same characteristics which make them more susceptible to eating disorders; the most common being: perfectionism; the desire to please; the ability to ignore pain and exhaustion; obsessiveness and the burning desire to reach their goals.”

From her article Child Performers and Eating Disorders: Why It Happens and What You Can Do About It.

Entertainment Tonight reported in 2006 that 17-year-old “Reba” actress Scarlett Pomers had entered an eating disorder clinic to deal with her extreme weight loss… it reached an astonishing low of 73 pounds…

“My weight was something I could control. I began excessively dieting and over-exercising [as much as six hours per day].”

A glamorised disorder

“Eating disorders are glamorised in ways that other mental illnesses aren’t,” says Traci MannPhDwho studied the effectiveness of an eating disorder prevention program.

“People don’t sayI wish I could be schizophrenic for three months. I want to be anorexic for three months should sound as ridiculous as thatbut it doesn’t.”

The picture that many have of eating disorderssays Mannis very distorted: that it is a behaviour just slightly beyond the normthat makes you thinand can be recovered from at will. [ May 181998]

Caryl Ehrlichin her article Unrealistic expectations can cause failure – excerpted from her book Conquer Your Food Addiction – talks about a young woman:

“She was unable to acknowledge anything positive. So great were her unrealistic expectationsit was impossible for her to feel joy or satisfaction in what she had accomplished. By ignoring these fragile budsby not wateringnurturingand turning them to sunlightthey turn to dust.”

Felicity Huffman [“Desperate Housewives” and a number of movies] revealed she suffered from eating disorders throughout her late teens.

She says“I was bulimic and anorexic for a whilejust hating my body. As an actressI was never thin enoughnever pretty enough. My boobs weren’t big enough.” Huffman credits having two kids and turning 40 for helping her to come to terms with her body at last.

She adds“I think I’ve always had a 40-year-old bodyand now that I’m actually there I’m like‘Heypretty good.’” [ 23 Nov 2005]

Actor Kate Beckinsale has reported she also suffered: “I was anorexicweighing five stone [seventy pounds] at fifteen. I always felt that anorexia was the form of breakdown most readily available to adolescent girls.

“Its place and role in the family is very interesting: There is usually one person in the family who unknowingly becomes the catalyst for things – almost the scapegoat in a way – to stop the whole structure from collapsing.

“I had five years of intense Freudian analysiswhich I don’t think a lot of girls of my age do.

“My family didn’t respond to my anorexia as a physical illnesswhich was terribly important. Anorexia is a red herring… everything that is going on underneath carries on.” [Interview mag. July1998]

Gifted women

Psychologist Patricia Gatto-WaldenPhD describes a number of issues that contribute:

“In working with gifted females who have eating disordersI have noticed many of these attributes: confusion with regard to giftedness; impostor syndrome; feeling too different from others; asynchronous development; divergent thinking; intense sensitivity and empathy; existential depression…

“All my gifted female clients with an eating disorder shared six characteristicsnamely:

> personal identity that does not include being gifted
> debilitating perfectionism
> excessive need to please others
> experience of isolation and loneliness
> stressful transitions during onset of disorder”

From her article “Counseling Gifted Females with Eating Disorders” – Advanced Development: A Journal on Adult GiftednessVol. 81999.

Actorproducerdirector Drew Barrymore has expressed what seems to me a positive and realistic attitude:

“My responsibility is to keep myself in a certain level of shape and health. But my body type is my body typeand I am not going to starve myself. And you can’t win…. Nobody has it all. We all have our attributesand you have to be grateful for those.”  [PremiereNov. 2000]

That kind of healthy self-regard may not be something you can easily “choose.” Anorexiabulimia and body dysmorphia are seriouseven life-threatening disorderswith complex mental health aspects. An eating disorder may have been a factor in the recent death of Brittany Murphy.

But if you are a girl or woman being overly concerned with looking like an airbrushed model or actress on a magazine coveror all too many tv and movie stars – it might be worth asking how much that concern (and maybe excessive exercising and dieting) is deflecting your energies from otherperhaps more gratifying forms of creative self-expression. Just asking. Though what do I know? I am not of the female persuasion.


Perfectionism posts on the High Ability site
Perfectionism articles
Self concept / self esteem articles
Body image quotesbooks etc
Eating Disorders quotesbooks etc
my article The Dark Side of Beauty

Eating Disorder books
Perfectionism books

perfectionism and eating disordersperfectionism and mental healthperfectionism and self conceptbody image obsession

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