Sunday, December 31, 2006

The real social disease? And Happy New Year.

So, Saturday afternoon I'm working on a rewrite due first-thing Tuesday, and as is my custom, I'm also watching a Lifetime movie out of the corner of my eye.* This one is called Dying to Dance, and it's about the unrelenting pressure on female ballet hopefuls to make themselves into living stick figures. The 2001 film follows a young woman as she drives herself to lose more and more weight and finally descends into the depths of full-blown anorexia. Obviously, though the film is set in the dance realm, it has wide relevance for others; the impact of the body-image nightmare on young women throughout America is well-documented, as is the prevalence of associated eating disorders.**

I bring this up because three-quarters of the way through the flick, there's a pivotal scene in which the girl collapses to the sidewalk after a confrontation with her mother, who is understandably terrified by the teenager's weight loss and unwillingness to seek help. No sooner does the girl hit the ground than the screen fades to black and we go to commercial. And what's the commercial? It's that obnoxious and recently ubiquitous NutriSystem spot featuring that teeth-grating woman who finally "feels so sexy" again. After slimming to a size 2.

A size 2. And the message to American women? You wanna be sexy? Get to be a size 2. Somehow.

The size of today's "typical" American woman is a matter of some controversy, but all reliable studies of the subject suggest that she
wears something like a 12 or 14. I'm not saying that's a good thing, and I'm not saying it's a bad thing. No question, there are millions of Americans (plenty of men among them) who could stand to lose a few pounds for health reasons. Thing is, the nonstop assault on women's egos has little to do with health. In fact, one of the great tragic ironies of American culture is that too often, the women trying desperately to lose weight are not the ones who need to do it for health reasons. Instead, those who are most frantic to shed every available ounce are perfectly healthy (soon-to-be formerly healthy) young women, victims of a loose but effective conspiracy between advertising, entertainment, our friends at NutriSystem and the rest of the diet industry...and oh yes, the very sharp tongues of some very dull young men.

We're never going to conquer the enormous body-image problem afflicting young women by constantly bombarding them with unrealistic goals—or by running TV movies sponsored by ads that breed the very same disease that the movie laments.

Now have a Happy New Year, and if you resolve to lose weight in 2007, please do it for the right reasons.

* I swear to you—I'm straight.
** Yes, here as elsewhere, the "honest stats" have sometimes been subject to perversion by those with an agenda. But the sheer volume of evidence leaves little doubt that excessive body-consciousness has reached pandemic proportions, especially in certain subcultures and social strata.


Anonymous said...

Steve, I'd be interested in what you think about the effect that so-called "men's magazines" like Playboy and Maxim have on the expectations of young (and older) men about women's bodies. Since only much-enhanced, airbrushed models have any chance of attaining that appearance, if men turn to these mags for fantasies, surely the reality, however naturally attractive, is bound to disappoint?

Steve Salerno said...

As I said, the entertainment industry is certainly one player here, and men's magazines are part of that industry. But far worse--at least in my estimation--is the damage women have wreaked on themselves via their own magazines and the industries they serve. Women should have used their publishing voice to revolt: to rally around the notion that the perfect, air-brushed female form is a myth, a false ideal that will only lead to heartache, disappointment and worse. Instead they embraced the mythology of female perfection in both editorial content and the advertising they eagerly sought and ran. One thing I'll say for men's magazines is that in general, the models aren't anorexic. I don't think you see too many size 2s in Playboy centerfolds. And though the sorts of photo spreads that appear there may celebrate/encourage other types of behavior that you deem objectionable, I don't think thumbing through Playboy is going to cause too many women to starve themselves to death.

Anonymous said...


Did you ever see "Little Miss Sunshine"??? This one is right up your alley.

Steve Salerno said...

I actually talk about the movie (though I haven't seen it) in my post of October 17, 2006. Thanks for the tip, though.

Cosmic Connie said...

Women *did* try to revolt against that airbrushed stereotype. Remember "Ms" magazine? Unfortunately, they ended up creating another somewhat revolting, if you will, stereotype: the humorless feminist with unshaved armpits and a boatload of anger.

There's gotta be a middle ground. I think that "More," a magazine for women over 40, is trying to reach that middle ground. Even Oprah's magazine (much as it pains me to admit it) seems to place more emphasis on inner beauty than outer perfection.

It would be nice if some of the magazines for younger women would take a cue from "More." But as long as the cosmetics industry has all those advertising bucks to spend, not much will change.

PS - The Rev and I actually bought "Little Miss Sunshine." (My idea.) It had its moments -- and the Greg Kinnear character was great -- but we were pretty disappointed overall. Rent it first.

Trish Ryan said...

I saw "Supersize Me" last night. That gave me the right sort of "grab an apple, not a Big Mac" motivation for the coming year - yikes. We are a nation that swings to some wild extremes!