Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Warning: The Images You Are About to See May Be Damaging to Your Health

I'm a big fan of Jezebel, but I think they've got it wrong this morning. In a post discussing a recent editorial in the Daily Mail by grieving mother Rosalind Ponomarenko-Jones, whose 19-year-old daughter died of anorexia, Margaret Hartmann argues against the notion of labeling photos of celebrity "twiglets" when they get too thin.

Ponomarenko-Jones argues against the current appearance-driven culture, which calls out celebrities not for achievements but for appearance. And "calls out" is the right expression, since we're all familiar with the standard scary-skinny-celebrity story these days: Publish a photo of a woman so emaciated that it's painful to look at her, along with a headline that screams a fake concern for her well-being. The whole exercise feels prurient and voyeuristic.

Hartmann centers her argument on the logistics and legality of the question: How would we determine when a celeb is "too thin"? How would we know when to label an image and when not to? It's a valid point. And before commenters jump on me for this, I acknowledge that you can't tell whether someone has an eating disorder just by looking at her. Some people are naturally skinny, and there are other reasons (other illnesses) for gauntness.

But Ponomarenko-Jones has the moral high ground here, and I wish there were a way to honor the spirit of her request. Because we (and by "we" I mean the media) don't go around publishing photos of, say, recent cancer victims, who may be every bit as scarily skinny as an actress in the grip of anorexia. Yet magazines and websites are full of images of "twiglets," young women so thin you can see the shape of their femurs. Why is it OK to publish these images and not, say, images of Farah Fawcett as she lay dying of cancer?

It comes down to our blindness to eating disorders as "real" diseases. We would cringe at the idea of violating Fawcett's privacy in that way. Yet the young celebrities who walk so scary-skinny among us are dying of an illness, too, an illness that will kill them as surely as cancer killed Fawcett. The difference is that with treatment, many of these women can recover; for Fawcett and many other cancer victims, alas, treatment did not save their lives.

And of course treatment won't always help with eating disorders, either. But the point here is that instead of parading these images as models for women--whether this is openly acknowledged or not--we should label them for what they are: images of the gravely ill, who are struggling with their own terrible reality and heart-breaking health battles.

Jezebel got it wrong. The real shanda (as my grandmother would have said) is that we pretend there's no such thing as too thin.


lilacsigil said...

I find this a very confronting and confusing issues. I'm a cancer survivor whose weight was greatly affected by cancer - but I had thyroid cancer and gained a huge amount of weight due to the disease. After-effects continue and will do so for the rest of my life. Yet there are other people the same size as me who are perfectly healthy. Should we not publish picture of them? When pictures of Gabourey Sidibe are published, I often see comments complaining that she is an unhealthy role-model; I believe that she is, in this society, a very healthy role-model.

And yet, you are totally correct about the pretence that there is no "too thin", that being extraordinarily thin is "natural" and healthy (or, alternatively, a wonderful, hard-won goal) for large numbers of women, and almost all famous women. It's dangerous and harmful but the idea of policing individual bodies in photographs really disturbs me.

Ashley said...

The thing I have issues with is, who gets to decide what is too thin? Hell, who gets to decide what "appears" to thin? And who is anyone to say that anyone is with an eating disorder? The fact that the media posts a photo with a caption insinuating anorexia needs a to get a life. Seriously. These are celebrities, and their weight is no one business but their own. Everyone needs to just back off and worry about their own lives and stop labeling, period.

Tiana said...

Because we (and by "we" I mean the media) don't go around publishing photos of, say, recent cancer victims, who may be every bit as scarily skinny as an actress in the grip of anorexia.

If we had no idea that the person had cancer, we would. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that had already happened - that a picture of someone with a serious physical illness appeared in such an article at some point.

There is simply no way to avoid this problem unless people stop taking pictures of celebrities altogether - which I certainly wouldn't mind, but you just know it's not going to happen. So how are we supposed to tell who is sick and who isn't? I mean with ANY disease.

Sure, articles that mock someone's appearance need to go. But the pictures themselves? I've met people who were as thin as that and perfectly healthy. I've also met people who were as thin as that due to physical diseases that they will have for the rest of their lives. Are the chronically ill not allowed to feel beautiful?

JS said...

I think that not policing other women's bodies (and other people's bodies, but especially women's bodies) includes not policing them for being "too thin."

And I don't see how that's controversial. Policing women for being "too thin" doesn't make the policing women for being "too fat" go away. Let each individual person (and their doctors) assess their own state of health, yes?

That said, I do think that clothing manufacturers should be pressured or perhaps even required to make their sample sizes larger, so that mags and fashion shows will need to use models with larger body habits to make the clothes look good. Back in the day, the sample size was US 6; now it's US 2 or US 0. Since agencies cast models who are a size or two smaller than the samples (since it's easier to take clothes in than let them out), the declining sample size has put pressure on models to get thinner or lose work.

Cicek said...

English is not my native lang, so excuse the mistakes.

I had anorexia when I was 15 (due to post-traumatic stress) without technically being anywhere near overweight or even at higher weight.

I gained weight, got a little overweight (which was not a big deal, as I would think). Đ¢hen I lost it without any efforts.

3 years ago I was under much stress (personal and professional) and started to lose weight (there are people that gain and others that lose under stress). Without dieting, fitness and so on.
I was just coming to work, buying a sandwich and some sweets or fruits or anything and didn’t really pay attention to it. I need to eat in order to function in order to meet the deadline.

At the end everything was done, and I was skinny, exhausted, gaunt face ..., but without eating disorder.

There were a lot of fuss around me, distressed looks, I even started questioning my own perceptions. Which are pretty good. And I was not in denial. I am at the same weight now but with better face and skin.

In my eyes, the gossipy attention is awful, esp. when it concerns your privacy. I admit that I find it distressful and disrespectful. I am not supposed to explain to every other person (or to every other gossipy media, if I am a “celebrity” or just happen to be an actress or a director or my husband’s wife) why I am fat or thin, why I am ugly or beautiful, or stressed or ill or even old. Some aging women get skinny. At least I know some. Or your husband is fucking around, you have 3 kids and you are not healthy and happy? Shame on you. Are we supposed to be an eye-candy and please everybody around?