Today in a Daily Mail editorial, a mother whose daughter died of anorexia argues that photos of "twiglet" celebrities like Nicole Richie should run with a health warning in magazines. But how will editors determine which actresses are too thin?
Rosalind Ponomarenko-Jones' story is heartbreaking; Her 19-year-old daughter Sophie's heart failed after a two year battle with anorexia. She writes that she'll never know why Sophie succumbed to an eating disorder:
But I do know that she was an avid reader of the kind of glossy magazines that obsess about body image. She would leaf through a pile of them every month, mulling over photos of dangerously thin women. And she soaked up their 'advice' about diet and weight loss. She bought into the fiction that slimness equals success.
Ponomarenko-Jones puts a lot of blame on celebrities for inspiring anorexic behavior, but using "thinspiration" photos is just one of the more noticeable behaviors that may be symptomatic of a larger problem. Obviously, seeing pictures of the super-thin don't help, but there are many complex psychological issues involved with disordered eating.. It's not like seeing a photo of a thin celebrity instantly triggers a larger problem.
While Ponomarenko-Jones is a grieving mom who's trying to prevent other women from dying a tragic death, her idea for combating eating disorders is off target. She writes:
I have a radical proposal for any glossy magazine editor who plans to publish a photo of a "twiglet' celebrity. Perhaps he or she would consider also running a health warning alongside it — an extended version of those you find on cigarette packets. "Being this thin could lead to death," it might say. Then it could list the symptoms — shrivelled ovaries, brittle bones, wasted muscles and foul breath — of starving oneself. Not remotely alluring or sexy, are they?
Ponomarenko-Jones looks at a recent feature in the British tabloid Heat called "The Rise Of The Celebrity Twiglets!" and makes a great point about how magazine editors feign concern about super-skinny celebs, but, "while the celebrity magazine headline says 'This is appalling', I believe an unwritten sub-text shrieks: 'Isn't it amazing that these women are so thin?'"
These features are, in their way, glamorizing being an unhealthily low weight — but they're just symptomatic of a larger problem. Editors declare a star has an eating disorder based on a photo, just like they report Katie Holmes is pregnant because she's wearing a billowy top, or decide Mariah Carey is burying her sorrows in food because there's a little cellulite on her thighs. It's a culture of body-fixation and judgment.
Previously, doctors and academics in the U.K. lobbied for advertisements with Photoshopped models to carry a warning label, and the French Parliament voted in favor of a bill that would make it illegal for people in the advertising, magazine, or fashion industries to "incite others to deprive themselves of food" to an "excessive" degree. Both of these proposals target professionals in a regulated industry. They aren't necessarily great solutions, but it is possible to determine if an image has been altered, and to calculate a model's BMI before she walks down the runway. But how would this work with paparazzi photos of celebrities?
Nicole Richie is named in the editorial as a celebrity whose image may need a warning label because Ponomarenko-Jones says she's thin:
"[But Richie has] retinue of personal trainers, dietitians, beauticians and stylists to shape and polish their image. Our children do not. But they want to look as glossy and airbrushed as she does; vitally, they want to be as thin, too. So what do they do? Many of them take the shortest and most perilous route to weight loss: they starve themselves.
Since Richie denies she has an eating disorder, what's the criteria for labeling a photo of her playing in the park with her kids "unhealthy?" Should editors' subjective opinions of stars' bodies have even more clout? And what about overweight stars? Surely someone would argue that if Richie deserves a warning label about the health effects of being underweight, Gabourey Sidible should have a label regarding the dangers of being overweight. But there's no way to accurately judge a person's weight from a photo, and only their doctor can determine whether or not they're healthy. T
While celebrities do project an image that many young women try to live up to, most paparazzi photos are captured when they're technically not working. Nicole Richie can't be held responsible for spreading anorexia by living her life as a thin human being. The sad truth is the ideas and images that encourage anorexia are widespread in our culture. Slapping a label on a photo won't solve the problem, it will just subject our bodies to even more scrutiny.