Larger than Life? Celebrities & Eating Disorders Have a Long History
By Hugh C. McBride
As the center of an image-based industry, Hollywood has long been home to a community of disordered eaters who believed (rightly so, in many unfortunate cases) that their very careers depended upon their adherence to a decidedly unhealthy lifestyle.
During a time when studios had great control over what the public did and did not know about the stars of the day, and experts were decades away from classifying anorexia as a psychiatric disorder, information about celebrities and eating disorders was much more difficult to come by. But that doesn’t mean that the stars of yesteryear were immune from these conditions:
- Vera-Ellen – The Internet Movie Database describes this 1940s-era actress as “a lithe and lovely presence” who “gave life to some of the most extraordinary dance routines ever caught on film.” Renowned for having “the smallest waist in Hollywood,” Vera-Ellen appeared alongside stars such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley before ill health (perhaps exacerbated by her anorexia) and other influences ended her career while she was still in her 30s. Film lore has it that the costumes Vera-Ellen wore in the classic film “White Christmas” were designed specifically to cover her neck, which showed severe signs of premature aging as a result of her anorexia. She was only 33 when that film premiered.
- Judy Garland – Only 17 when she starred in “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland was given pills for both sleep and extra energy, and was ordered to lose weight. Though her death 30 years later was attributed to an overdose of barbiturates, the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “it is speculated that anorexia and liver damage may have been factors.”
- Audrey Hepburn – Many film aficionados cite Hepburn as the epitome of natural beauty and healthy thinness; however, the website AnorexicWeb reports that the actress “was known to lose weight under stress and be ‘strange’ about food, but during her career it was not known to the public.”
AMERICA “DISCOVERS” ANOREXIA
Fast-forwarding a few decades, many Americans were first introduced to the term “anorexia” when learning of the death of Karen Carpenter. On Feb. 3, 1983, the 32-year-old singer died after experiencing heart failure in her parents’ home. According to the online reference site Wikipedia, Carpenter’s death was clearly a result of her eating disorder:
The autopsy stated that Carpenter’s death was the result of emetine cardiotoxicity due to anorexia nervosa. Under the anatomical summary, the first item was heart failure, with anorexia as second. The third finding was cachexia, which is extremely low weight and weakness and general body decline associated with chronic disease.
Emetine cardio toxicity implies that Carpenter abused ipecac syrup, an easily obtained emetic medicine that is only meant to be taken by persons who have accidentally swallowed poison.
In the wake of Carpenter’s death, awareness of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia increased significantly, as did the willingness of other celebrities to publicly acknowledge their struggles with these diseases.
NO LONGER A SECRET STRUGGLE
In more than a quarter century since Karen Carpenter’s death, dozens of celebrities have divulged details of their experiences with disordered eating. The following are just a few of the prominent individuals who have made such public admissions:
- Victoria Beckham – In her 2001 autobiography, the former Spice Girl confessed to an unhealthy obsession with her weight and periods of binge eating. A Sept. 2, 2001, article on the BBC News website reported that “she has admitted that in the early days of the Spice Girls, when they were under pressure from their management to lose weight, dieting was a preoccupation.”
- Diana, Princess of Wales – Though her bulimia was first revealed in Andrew Morton’s book Diana: Her True Story, the princess later publicly discussed the issue herself. “You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable,” she said during an interview with the BBC One Panorama. “You fill your stomach up four or five times a day and it gives you a feeling of comfort. Then you’re disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again. It’s a repetitive pattern which is very destructive to yourself.”
- Elton John – Shortly after undergoing treatment for drug abuse and bulimia in the early 1990s, John spoke to Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn about his descent into self-destructive behaviors. “Despite all the success, I think I just wanted to be loved,”he told Hilburn.”I wanted someone to love me.”
- Lindsay Lohan – A May 2005 intervention during her stint as guest host of “Saturday Night Live” convinced Lohan to get help, the actress told Vanity Fair in an interview that appeared in the magazine’s February 2006 issue. “They sat me down, literally before I was going to do the show, and they said, ‘You need to take care of yourself. We care about you too much, and we’ve seen too many people do this,’ and I just started bawling,” Lohan told VF. “I knew I had a problem and I couldn’t admit it. … My arms were disgusting. I had no arms. My sister, she was scared. My brother called me, crying.”
- Billy Bob Thornton – The actor told the Los Angeles Daily News that the 59 pounds he dropped between two films he made in the late 1990s was the result of disordered eating. “Frankly, for a while there, I think I had a little mental problem,” Thornton said. “I got anorexic. Of course, I denied it to my girlfriend and everyone else who said I had an eating disorder.”
Unhealthy body sizes have permeated the culture to such a degree that even inanimate objects are affected. As an article on the Media Awareness Network website points out, America’s favorite plasticized person has, for decades, been the very model of unattainable beauty:
Researchers generating a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions, for example, found that her back would be too weak to support the weight of her upper body, and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and a few centimeters of bowel.
A real woman built that way would suffer from chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition. Still, the number of real life women and girls who seek a similarly underweight body is epidemic, and they can suffer equally devastating health consequences.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Today, the pressure on celebrities to maintain ever-more-unhealthy levels of thinness may be greater than ever. From television shows to checkout-line tabloids to what seems like every other site on the Internet, famous (and not-so-famous) bodies are displayed with reckless abandon and critiqued beyond the point of ridicule.
And though some may claim that those who chase fame-based careers are “asking for it” when it comes to rampant attention and constant inspection, the unpleasant fact is that celebrity-based body-image judgments inevitably ooze into society in general.
As Mimi Spencer wrote in the Aug. 6, 2006 edition of the U.K. newspaper The Observer, the dangerous standards to which we hold our celebrities eventually become the accepted – albeit equally devastating – expectations we have of ourselves.
“It matters because hyper-thin has somehow become today’s celebrity standard and, as a result – almost without us noticing – the goalposts have moved for us all,” Spencer wrote. “With every image of Nicole Richie’s feeble wrists or Posh Spice’s concave thighs … an inch or an ounce is shaved off the notional ideal female form which governs our relationship with our bodies and with the world.”
As Vera-Ellen learned a half-century ago, the effects of striving for an unattainable (or at least un-maintainable) body can extend far beyond one’s career. But while she was once considered somewhat of a curiosity, in today’s society ultra-thin has come to be expected.
“I have seen this kind of thin before,” Spencer continued. “It resided in the endocrinology department at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, where a member of my own family was treated for anorexia throughout her teens. Little could I have known that, in the intervening two decades, the morbidly hungry body type I saw there would become celebrated, a glory to which women of all ages might aspire.”
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