Years ago, I had a fairly sizable case of celebrity worship. Glossy tabloid magazines peppered my nightstand like salacious confetti, headlines screaming about alleged infidelity, gay rumors, secret plastic surgeries and marriage woes. I eagerly followed the progress of a certain actress' baby bump, analyzing whether her loose-fitting top was an attempt at food baby camouflage or existed to hide an actual baby. I pondered the possibility that my favorite celebrity chef might be (GASP) a cocaine addict. Was the z-list I'd had a crush on forever REALLY GAY? These things kept me awake at night.
I don't read those magazines anymore. I prefer to get my celebrity gossip the old-fashioned way...through 30-miunute snippets on Entertainment Tonight. The other evening I was lounging on my couch and caught coverage of an interview Jennifer Hudson did with Self Magazine, in which she mentioned that she’s prouder of her weight loss than her Oscar. She also stated, “I didn’t even know I was considered plus-sized until I came to Hollywood.”
Then I opened my Lucky Magazine, and was startled by the following quotes from cover girl Jessica Alba:
"I have a hard time with portion control, so I have 1,200 calorie meals delivered. But I also work out, so basically I'm starving. It sucks. I drink a lot of water. In the gym, I have like five things to distract me: TV, iPod, magazines. Working partners are good, too, so you can chat and not just drown in your own misery."One of the best way to sell magazines and books is to mention weight loss. In fact, as of this post, five of the top ten New York Times non-fiction hardcover bestsellers address weight loss. And now research suggests that women might be more likely to believe the media over loved ones when assessing their own body image.
Researchers at Arizona State University studied 112 women ages 18-45, and linked 823 people in their families and social networks for follow-up interviews. They measured the degree to which the women felt stigmatized about their weight, and they asked the women “Do you think (so-and-so) thinks you should lose weight?” Members of the social network were asked if they thought the women should lose weight.
According to Psych Central, researchers expected to find ways that friends and family made women feel bad about their weight. Instead, they found friends and family were less likely to say that the woman needed to lose weight than the woman herself predicted. “We found that women generally missed the mark when estimating what their friends and family thought about their weight,” said Daniel J. Hruschka, co-author of the study. “Women were a bit more attuned to the views of close friends and family, but even then, they generally perceived the judgments of others inaccurately.”
But here's what jumped out at me: The women in the study felt stigmatized about their weight despite the fact that people in their lives thought they looked just fine. The researchers speculated that media messages about the body override the messages women get from friends and family.
Since the 1960s, eating disorder incidence rates have doubled (Eating Disorders Coalition, 2006). Interestingly, during the same period of time, mass media has increasingly portrayed progressively thinner representations of the female body. In a renowned study, Garner and colleagues reported that the body measurements and weights of Playboy centerfolds and Miss America Pageant contestants decreased dramatically between 1959 and 1978. More recently, Wiseman and colleagues (1992) observed that this trend continued through 1988. Television has also contributed to this obsession with thinness. A 2000 study found that thinner female characters in television situation comedies received more compliments from men than did heavier characters.
All of these finding tell me that we are increasingly disconnected with what our bodies actually look like. We have no idea of reality when it comes to our own body image. Vanity sizing has basically destroyed any standard of measurement in women's clothing. Actresses are getting thinner and thinner. Our brains become consumed with varieties of compare and contrast, pitting us against celebrities, TV and movie stars in a desperate quest for perfection. "Can I really lose seven pounds in seven days?" "Heidi Klum shaved off her baby weight in four months, so I should be able to do that too." "If Jessica Alba thinks she needs to lose weight, then I must look like a hippopotamus" (that one is from me.)
It's nearly impossible to turn our attention away from messages the media churns out. But it's even more heartbreaking when celebrities confess to being as miserable and skewed about their bodies and diets as we might be. The best we can do is understand that while we might admire acting ability or singing talent, coveting a celebrity's body might mean taking on their distorted body image as well.
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