Ads, outrage, and eating disorders

Several weeks ago, there was a massive to-do over a horrifically Photoshopped image of a Ralph Lauren model. Boing Boing said it best: "Dude, her head is bigger than her pelvis!" And in the image, indeed it was. Ralph Lauren later fired the model, Filippa Hamilton, for being too fat, even though she's a size 4. Last week, documentary filmmaker Darryl Roberts (he directed the movie "America the Beautiful") was supposed to have appeared on Larry King Live until the people at Ralph Lauren allegedly had the segment pulled. Now, the America the Beautiful Action Group has created a Facebook page encouraging people to boycott Ralph Lauren.

I have not joined this Facebook group for a variety of reasons, one being the fact that I never bought any of his stuff anyway, so my boycott of the company would have precisely zero effect on their bottom line. The other major reason is that I really, really, truly dislike how negative ads like Ralph Lauren's are conflated with causing eating disorders.

In an open letter to Ralph Lauren, Roberts writes that:

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting tens of thousands of young girls while promoting my documentary “America the Beautiful.” To look in the eyes of over 100,000 college women and hear their pain (body image, self-esteem) has been an experience that I will never forget. I’ve also heard from over 80,000 parents that are in pain because they have to hear from their sons and daughters in pain. It does truly become a generational cycle.

I’m sure that you’re fully aware that a lot of the American population feels that the unhealthy ads in magazines are damaging to women. The damage comes in various forms; body image problems, low self-esteem and for some of the women, they get a full blown eating disorder like your niece Jenny.


Believe it or not, [adults and parents] get hurt as much as the young girls that read the magazines and look at the ads. “How? You wonder.” When a young girl reads these ridiculous fashion magazines and gets triggered into a full blown eating disorder, who do you think gets left holding the bag for the $30,000 a month treatment? I’ve met parents that have had their entire savings wiped out and some have taken out second mortgages on their homes to pay for the treatment of their young daughters.

Although Roberts says that he was told by an ED expert that 50-80% of the risk for developing an eating disorder is genetic, the message here is clear.

I'm all in favor of supporting a boycott for Ralph Lauren because he's engaging in false advertising (which is what I think the dramatically altered images really are), for being denigrating towards women, or for just being a douchebag. All of these are quite possibly true.

All of these have NOTHING to do with eating disorders.

Yes, our thin-is-in culture plays a role in triggering eating disorders, but the holy-is-in culture played a role in triggering eating disorders during the Middle Ages. I'm not saying that we should support or participate in this culture (it's damaging even if you exclude any triggered eating disorders), but we can also oppose it for reasons that have nothing to do with EDs.

Writes Sue Sierralupe of the Oregon Natural Health Examiner:

The National Organization for Women (NOW) is one of the many organization demanding a change in advertising policies that encourage eating disorders. NOW has prioritized encouraging women's self esteem with Body awareness education, "Love your Body Day" and a posting of ads offensive to women and ads that are supportive of women. NOW has asked Ralph Lauren to apologize encouraging unrealistic body images that lead to eating disorders.

...Most cases of anorexia and bulimia are symptoms of unhealthy self esteem. According to the Women's Center for Healthy Living (WCHL), "Anorexia and bulimia are characterized in part by a refusal to eat and repeated attempts at dieting. Even if individuals suffering from anorexia or bulimia are a normal weight, their body images are distorted, causing them to continually attempt weight loss. The thought process of those suffering from anorexia or bulimia is that if they only weighed a certain number, life would be "good" and they would feel good about themselves. The truth is that weight cannot and does not determine your self-esteem or self-worth."

Which is pretty much bass-ackwards. I don't oppose NOW for trying to promote women's health by ads that aren't sexist and offensive. I rather think that's a good idea. But EDs aren't just a feminist "up yours" to the patriarchy done in a nice feminine way. They're an illness.

Many people with EDs have a history of low self-esteem because they also suffered from perfectionism, and nothing saps your self-esteem like the feeling that you are never good "enough." Yet the one thing that absolutely wrecked my self-esteem was my eating disorder. The truly pitiful self-esteem happened after; it wasn't great before, but it wasn't literally and metaphorically in the toilet, either. EDs aren't about the vapid pursuit of an ever-decreasing weight. They're about scrambled neurotransmitters, about how ED symptoms can help mediate feelings of anxiety and depression, they're about genetics, and a vicious cycle that doesn't seem to stop. Furthermore, the symptoms of body dysmorophia and "feeling fat" are a relatively recent phenomenon- they weren't consistently present before the 1800s, and didn't comprise a majority of AN cases until into the 1900s.

Ultimately, Sarah Ravin said it best: this focus on EDs as just really extreme body image dissatisfaction "trivializes the anguish that eating disordered people experience."


Julie said...

Absolutely fantastic post - great read. I too did not join the facebook page as I felt the it lacked perspective in relation to the entire issue.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

LOL at "holy-is-in." Nice post.

Cathy (UK) said...

I totally agree. I get so frustrated with the over-emphasis that society, the media, and even some professionals place upon the assumed role of 'skinny models/celebrities' in the aetiology of EDs.

EDs are not CAUSED by culture. Rather, some (not all) people who have an ED are drawn to cultural cues that 'feed' their ALREADY ESTABLISHED illness. A symptom of an ED is to become sensitive to various 'triggers'. Similarly, distorted body image is sometimes a SYMPTOM (but not the primary cause) of an ED.

Our society won't prevent or cure EDs by removing media images of thin women, or by banning adverts that focus on weight, food, image or diets. Such moves may make many women (with or without EDs) feel happier about their bodies, but contrary to what many people assume, I don't believe that EDs are an extension of normal concerns that every woman has about her physical appearance.

(Sorry feminist writers and psychotherapists, but I don't buy all this sociological stuff about societal pressure on women to look good or to be mens' 'playthings' as a cause of EDs).

The more that EDs are viewed for what they really are - i.e. a neurophysiological phenomenon - caused in part by inherent brain physiology and in part by starvation and disordered eating - the less stigma there will be around these illnesses.

Katie said...

Ditto everything you and Cathy said. That last paragraph you quoted (Most cases of anorexia and bulimia...) made me laugh, because it was SO different to my experience and that of many other people I know. My self esteem is actually pretty good and other than a bit of an insecure period in my teens I've never thought I was fat, and that was certainly not my justification for being anorexic. I wonder where these people get the ideas that people with eating disorders all think they could understudy for Moby Dick? I suppose they only look at the symptoms, but honestly, being told that the risk for EDs is 50-80% genetic and then ignoring that to further a cause doesn't actually do much for that cause other than make it open to criticism and question. I'd love it if Ralph Lauren stopped making women look like cartoons but that's only because I object to the idea that the only way a woman can be attractive is if she's emaciated, not because it had any bearing on my health.

Carrie, your blog is a great treatment for my low blood pressure ;)

Anonymous said...

i agree with you. pre-ed, i hardly ever cracked open a girl magazine.

i do feel, though, that society's obsession with thinness makes it more difficult to recover from the ED once you're in it. i get these messages from all sides that conflict. on one side, you are unhealthy and dying. on the other, you are envied.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed and agree with your post. However I am only too happy to boycott Lauren and other such companies, for lots of reasons- one of which being that they have clothes made by cheap labor in China and then jack up the prices for fools in the US who value the name so much they'll way overpay for it. That and the abusive treatement and objectification of women that is apparently necessary to make the clothes "look good" (which, by the way, I don't see). If I'm going to buy cheap crap from China (which I do try to avoid), at least I expect it to be inexpensive.

Alas, like you, I already don't buy the stuff so my boycott would be meaningless but I am hoping plenty of other women will join in, and in general think more about how they are spending their money.

CG said...

good point - I do want to say though that many sufferers, myself included, would never have felt they needed to lose weight, taken action to lose weight, and then become physiologically addicted to methods used to do so (i.e. binging and throwing up), were it not for that societal idealization of unnatural thinness in women.

Carrie Arnold said...


That's a very good reason to boycott RL, I agree. I would join in the boycott of a company I didn't really purchase from in support of something that had a bit more ideological congruence, even if I was just another voice yelling into the wind.


You raise a really good point, and I think I might have to explore it more in depth. The emphasis on thinness is troublesome, yes, but what role it plays in the development of eating disorders hasn't been well-studied. The brains of many people with EDs tend to latch onto the pursuit of thinness as a "reason" for both the cause of the ED and the continuation of symptoms (though this reason is far from universal). Then again, the brains of anorexics from the middle ages latched onto "holiness" as a reason for their symptoms. So how different are these two factors? The truth is, I don't know.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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