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SHIT I HATE: Models as the Face of ED Survivorhood

Posted by pocochina on March 29, 2010

Let me be clear – I do not hate models who are suffering from eating disorders, have come out as ED sufferers or survivors, or who have turned to advocate for other sufferers.  That is a good thing to do, it comes from a place of kindness and intelligence, and it is an admirable use of privilege in order to help others.  Model moral behavior, you might even say.  However, I do not like the way the models’ narrative seems to be the dominant or even only story that is recognized in our wider media as the neatly-packaged beginning-to-end textbook case of an eating disorder.  I’m focusing on women here because women’s bodies are, overwhelmingly, the target of these narratives.  I’m also focusing on those women who have made it to tell their stories – though we know many will not make it, and we do not forget them.  I’m talking specifically about media portrayal of ED survivors.

Cut for potential ED triggers – remember your self-care, folks!

The first problem is with the cast of characters, whose lives are wildly divergent from most ED sufferers.

Perhaps most clearly relevant, models are thin by any rational standard, even models working in the “plus-size” industry.  Don’t get me wrong – if someone’s healthy, natural body type is within the range of conventional attractiveness, I am nothing but happy for her.  That sounds amazing, and I don’t begrudge anyone good luck that makes her life easier and more enjoyable.  But the cultural fixation on women who are thin enough to be considered culturally attractive reinforces the idea that the true tragedy of eating disorders is neither the intense suffering experienced by the person as she suffers from the disorder, but whether she accurately perceives herself as thin enough to be fuckable.  Fat and average-sized women who restrict dangerously….apparently have the right idea, but aren’t working hard enough at it.  No matter that starving is not safe; no matter the overwhelming mental agony that comes with an ED; no matter the long-term damage that occurs.  The media perpetrates the idea that some people are just too pretty to deserve to suffer.  ED survivors, including the women whose stories are being twisted this way, know that nobody deserves this suffering.

Models are beautiful, regardless of their size.  Again, I’m not resentful of pretty women, though I’m sure some haters will construe this argument that way.  Models are pretty, that is their job.  Not all women are pretty, and many ED sufferers will be only pretty, attractive, or even other than conventionally attractive.  This plays on the unfortunate idea that female beauty is the same as female worth, which in a vicious cycle relies heavily on female body size and shape.

Models are overwhelmingly white, which erases women and girls of color who suffer from eating disorders. I mean, does this even require elaboration?  Probably.  The problem of racial homogeneity in the fashion world overlaps with and mirrors the problem of body policing in the same world.  But when they coincide in this way, they serve not just the function of making bodies of color invisible, but also the casualties inflicted on the minds in those bodies.

Thin, pretty, white – models, even those who are technically plus-size models, perch high above the rest of us down here on the kyriarchy.  They’re moneyed (which means they can afford the intensive care they need for their disordered minds) and AFAIK cisgeneder and straight. I won’t call them strictly  able-bodied, because of course eating disorders are mental illnesses, but they do not show the culturally-acknowledged markers of disability.  Those of us who diverge farther from the social apex are certainly not less likely to suffer from EDs, and may be more so.  We should be represented.  We are here.  Our voices matter. 

Models are overwhelmingly anorexic, which leaves out other types of eating disorders.

Even artificially narrowing this discussion to restrictive eating disorders, leaving out compulsive overeating and similar disorders (which are very real and hurtful for the sufferer, but nobody is even pretending models represent those women), there are many restrictive eating disorders which are not anorexia nervosa.  Remember, to be anorexic, a person has to experience both mental and physical symptoms, including a BMI which is extremely low (even though BMI was never intended to be used for individual diagnoses).  Many women suffer from bulimia, or from destructive patterns of disordered eating which fall under the unsatisfying catch-all of EDNOS.  All of these disorders are real and require serious attention and public education and public health prevention efforts.  And while the models themselves are an important part of such an idea reaction, the media which insists on only one story is a hindrance towards our goals. 

Moreover, as a cultural narrative this reinforces dangerous notions of traditional femininity.  The media cannot resist glamorizing the idea of a woman so very committed to frail femininity.  She is pretty, she is self-sacrificing, she is a tiny broken bird, you can read her suffering in the lines between her ribs.  Starving has an inherently negative component to it – the act of not eating – and so it can be construed as passive no matter how much of an active struggle it may be to do so.  The reality of most eating disorders is just skin-crawlingly gross, and ignoring these women because their symptoms are unattractive just increases the cycle of shame and self-loathing.  Making yourself retch or shit in order to get rid of calories is so physical, so horribly real, so objectively repulsive, which reminds us that women are in fact physical beings with bodies that do something other than be pretty.  Other EDs are more clearly active works of ownership – and in a world where Women and girls are schooled in self-hatred by the myth of female ethereality.  Girls who are already prone to eating disorders – where fixation on such stories is often a symptom – consume these “human interest” “awareness” stories and, in the absence of stories to which they can relate, latch on to  these horrifying stories and turn them into aspiration instead of warning. This doesn’t happen to girls who are not prone to eating disorders, but when it does happen, it’s a brutal one-two punch – not only a brutal reminder of what you have to look like to deserve attention, but what you have to look like to even deserve help for the way you feel, for what you know in your few moments of clarity is a disease tearing through your body and your brain.

Most women who suffer from EDs are not initially triggered in the way models are triggered, so their stories are wildly unrepresentative.

The model’s ED story almost uniformly starts with the talent scout.  The talent scout sees this beautiful girl, but plys her with flattery to convince her that she must lose weight.  She succeeds, through eating disordered behavior, in losing enough weight to become a model.  ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THIS is representative, in any way, of the experience of the average eating disorder sufferer.  Our EDs were triggered and encouraged by people in our lives, often if not usually our parents, with no profit motive or proffered career.  We weren’t all told we were pretty enough to be models – some of us even have the gall to be average height or below.  We didn’t all get thin, even if we got a little thinner, no matter how much we starved.  We were never validated with jobs, or anything other than the sputtering endorphins creaked out by our battered bodies.  Nobody stared at us in awe at our skinniness, no matter how hard we tried.  This is a very rare story, held up as the norm, disguising and exacerbating symptoms in women who don’t map directly onto these expectations.

I don’t mean to compare the amount of suffering experienced by different ED victims.  The severity of symptoms of any illness depends on tons of factors, including but not limited to occupation, and ED is no different.  My issue is that because of the exclusive and arbitrary focus on models, this is the only narrative out there.  This means the media is training people to think that eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa, can be stopped with a simple formula:  be nice to pretty girls when you’re offering them jobs!  This will necessarily lead to a world where inner and outer beauty proliferate, in an acceptable range of hawtness and skill at sexy posing!  Moreover, it perpetuates the idea that you can tell a person’s health from their appearance.  It is too easy for observers to say that models are unhealthy because they just look too skinny….to be attractive.  Anti-ED efforts (and again, I think that the actual models involved understand this, Crystal Renn in particular, and are doing their best to call attention to it, it’s the consistent meta-narrative I take issue with) should be focused on eliminating the cultural pretense that an observer can tell something about an individual person’s health by how her body size stacks up against the observer’s aesthetic preferences.

Focusing on models and the world of high fashion unconscionably ignores perpetrators

All of the above stated, I think that the story of the evil modeling agent who chips away at the pretty pre-model’s self-esteem is, on some level to a lot of people, a stand-in for the significant forces in society which cause the same problems on a macro scale; however, the story as neatly packaged by the media serves to obscure this problem and choose a scapegoat group, no matter how culpable it may be, without examining the scope of the problem.  Look, I am as fond of an anti-capitalist parable as anyone – probably more so than many – but for the parable to work, the broader metaphor has to be apparent.

Because every time you see an ad featuring a thin woman, someone is trying to earn money off of your body insecurity.  Every time you watch a television show filled with thin women in order to sell time for ads filled with thin women, someone is profiting off of your insecurity. When you buy Lean Cuisine or that vile pro-ana Campbell’s crap instead of spending less on food with similar amounts of preservatives and salt in the name of “health,” with “health” as a stand-in for thinness, someone makes money off of your body insecurity.  Every time someone blames an alleged decline in national health on fat children, companies who sell unhealthy food and who refuse to allow their workers a healthy work-life balance profit off of the body insecurity of boys and girls and their parents.  Every time you purchase new clothing or makeup in order to momentarily alleviate this carefully crafted anxiety, some asshole profits off of it.  It’s easy to see how a child could be roped in by a modeling scout.  It’s harder – psychologically and emotionally as well as intellectually – to understand how grown, successful women similarly fall prey to the ana myth.  But we do.  We do it every day.  And we ignore this because this is where it gets scary – when does a diet become an ED?  How?  Nobody knows – because as a culture, we are too fixated on our beloved broken, then healed, girls to accept that anything similar is happening to us.

The world of high fashion and society can show personal and public concern for models without challenging any  the underlining social structures which encourage eating disorders in brains which are susceptible.

This is the final cruelty – the pretense of the quick fix.  Eating disorders are a public health disaster – anorexia nervosa, the disease suffered by the women most commonly profiled, is the most deadly mental illness.  BUT NEVER FEAR, Michael Kors is no longer using 15 year old children in his shows! Anna Wintour has expressed her displeasure at the dreaded tiny sample sizes! OUR SALVATION IS AT HAND.

This is clearly crap.  The high fashion world, probably to its own chagrin, does not so much push culture as reflect it back towards us.  We life in a pro-ana world, where fat girls are told by FLOTUS that they’re unhappy because they’re fat and not because of the stigma around fat, where teens are hyper-sexualized at a time when they could be learning to be in touch with their bodies, and then grown women spend the rest of their lives trying to look like their teenaged selves.  This, as the great Suzie Orbach said, is a form of violence against us, and it is perpetrated on a grand and powerful scale, by the powerful and in order to increase their wealth, against models and non-models alike.

Against all of us.  Hear us.

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