“I can’t recognize starvation when I see it”

14 Jun

After posting the clip in the previous post, I meandered through the complex mazes of the internet until I landed on a series of interviews with Portia de Rossi (now Mrs Degeneres). The interviews were part of a media tour to promote the publication of Unbearable Lightness, her memoir.

During her interview with Oprah¹, several images of the cast of the very popular show Ally McBeal flashed through the screen. The images brought back a half forgotten, half formed thought: these women are too thin–way too thin. Pictures of Calista Flockhart at the 1998 Grammis sparked speculation that she was anorexic (which, as far as I know, she still denies)

Even more shocking were pictures of Portia de Rossi taken a year and a half later, at a time when this gorgeous 5’7″ woman weighted only 82 pounds. Shortly after, she landed in the hospital, with incipient organ failure. All this, while still shooting Ally McBeal until the show’s cancellation in 2002.

After watching the interviews, I searched a bit, and found this opinion piece in Jezebel’s Thinspiration². For me, the short post, published a dater after the Oprah interview aired, makes a case for social responsibility from the show’s cast, as it seems at least one other actress has admitted to extreme dieting³:

However, she didn’t acknowledge the effect the casts’ unspoken competitive dieting had on female viewers.

After de Rossi joined the cast of Ally McBeal in 1998, the media focus on Calista Flockhart’s thinness shifted to other women on the show, as they dropped a significant amount of weight. At the time, I was 19, and that was the year that I started taking prescription diet pills. Obviously I don’t blame these women for that, but I can honestly say that as stupid as it sounds, their existence was a contributing factor in hating my own body. It’s not like I looked up to them, or even really blamed them personally for my problems. If anything, I resented them: I could tell by looking at them that they were dieting in an unhealthy fashion, but they just seemed more successful at it than I.

…these women provided an extreme visual, and we well know the impact that these visuals can ultimately have. And in de Rossi’s current media rounds, there doesn’t seem to be much acknowledgment of that. We shouldn’t be looking for an apology; she doesn’t owe us anything. But this is an opportunity for a discussion that should be had. Unfortunately, nobody’s having it.

The first visible comment, by sexysecularist (and I agree–most excellent handle), is this:

You know what’s awful? As a man who grew up in the 90s, I can’t recognize starvation when I see it. It wasn’t until people pointed out in the comments how brittle she seems in the top picture that I realized that that body mass is on the super-low end of average.

Bleh. And here I thought I’d escaped media influence.

The author of the piece took exception to this (something about male privilege and derailing conversation and what not) but the part I highlighted struck a chord with me.

See, I have many and varied mental issues, but preoccupation with my appearance has never been one of them. I don’t wear make up, can’t care less about fashion or how I look in what. Other than feeling healthy, I’ve never thought much about my weight–talk about privilege, right?

I work in the food industry (hell on earth for sure–you get a degree on misanthropy in a matter of weeks) and I often idly think about all the people I wait on, day in and day out. The day after reading that comment, I looked at my customers in a new way, and realized that I too can’t recognize starvation when I see it.

Is that young woman with the extremely skinny legs and arms naturally thin or is she starving herself? Does the fact that she ordered just a soda while the rest of her party ordered lunch means that she’s dieting or just that she’s not hungry?

I don’t know.

And it’s scary and sad that if I, who is seeing her for the first time, can not tell the difference, her close friends and family, who see her every day of her life, are probably oblivious to subtle, cumulative changes to her appearance–until it’s too late. Because images such as those of 1999 Miss Universe Australia present us with a clear cut case: protruding bones and skeletal limbs, but how often do we see truly slender women this exposed?

I’m afraid that the answer is, not often enough to help them.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~

¹ Part one, part two, part three, part four.

² Who had the absolutely appalling idea of using that word for that piece? If you search the term, you’ll be appalled and scared by what you find.

³ Though, if you follow the links to the suppossed admissions by Calista Flockhart and Courtney Thorne Smith, you’ll notice that they use the exact same sentences to describe their behaviour. This makes me think that there is some plagiarism and/or mis attribution there.


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