Are actors and other performers at greater risk for body image issues and eating disorders than people who are not “in the spotlight”? Maybe.
What has interested me in this topic over the years is how many highly talented women – especially actors – have talked about having body issues and eating disorders now or in their teens, and about the pressures in the entertainment industry to have the “right” look – and how that pressure relates to self esteem and to the dark side of striving for perfection.
What got me interested in all this again was psychotherapist Isabella Mori’s [@moritherapy] post eating disorders, depression and perfectionism. She notes that Therese Borchard [in her book Beyond Blue] quotes from Cherry Boone O’Neill’s memoir, Starving for Attention :
“In my early years I equated my worth as a person with the level of my performance and I felt that the love and approval of other people would be conditional upon my perfection.
“Therefore, I expanded every effort to be the best I could possibly be in any given area of endeavor, only to repeatedly fall short of my goals and risk losing value in the eyes of others. Trying even harder, only to miss the mark again, and again, resulted in compounded guilt and self-hatred.”
The image above is actor and entrepreneur Mary-Kate Olsen – hospitalized a few years ago for anorexia.
Most of the references in this post are to women; a site by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Anorexia says 85 – 95 percent of anorexics are female.
Beverly Hills psychologist Dr. Jenn Berman notes, “Psychological experts have found that many of the personality traits which make children great athletes or performers are the very same characteristics which make them more susceptible to eating disorders; the most common being: perfectionism; the desire to please; the ability to ignore pain and exhaustion; obsessiveness and the burning desire to reach their goals.”
Entertainment Tonight reported in 2006 that 17-year-old “Reba” actress Scarlett Pomers had entered an eating disorder clinic to deal with her extreme weight loss… it reached an astonishing low of 73 pounds…
“My weight was something I could control. I began excessively dieting and over-exercising [as much as six hours per day].”
A glamorised disorder
“Eating disorders are glamorised in ways that other mental illnesses aren’t,” says Traci Mann, PhD, who studied the effectiveness of an eating disorder prevention program. “People don’t say, I wish I could be schizophrenic for three months. I want to be anorexic for three months should sound as ridiculous as that, but it doesn’t.”
The picture that many have of eating disorders, says Mann, is very distorted: that it is a behaviour just slightly beyond the norm, that makes you thin, and can be recovered from at will. [cnn.com May 18, 1998]
“She was unable to acknowledge anything positive. So great were her unrealistic expectations, it was impossible for her to feel joy or satisfaction in what she had accomplished. By ignoring these fragile buds, by not watering, nurturing, and turning them to sunlight, they turn to dust.”
Felicity Huffman [“Desperate Housewives” and a number of movies] revealed she suffered from eating disorders throughout her late teens.
She says, “I was bulimic and anorexic for a while, just hating my body. As an actress, I was never thin enough, never pretty enough. My boobs weren’t big enough.” Huffman credits having two kids and turning 40 for helping her to come to terms with her body at last.
She adds, “I think I’ve always had a 40-year-old body, and now that I’m actually there I’m like, ‘Hey, pretty good.'” [imdb.com 23 Nov 2005]
Actor Kate Beckinsale has reported she also suffered as a teen. “I was anorexic, weighing five stone [seventy pounds] at fifteen. I always felt that anorexia was the form of breakdown most readily available to adolescent girls.
“Its place and role in the family is very interesting: There is usually one person in the family who unknowingly becomes the catalyst for things – almost the scapegoat in a way – to stop the whole structure from collapsing.
“I had five years of intense Freudian analysis, which I don’t think a lot of girls of my age do.
“My family didn’t respond to my anorexia as a physical illness, which was terribly important. Anorexia is a red herring… everything that is going on underneath carries on.” [Interview mag. July, 1998]
Psychologist Patricia Gatto-Walden, PhD describes a number of issues that contribute:
“In working with gifted females who have eating disorders, I have noticed many of these attributes: confusion with regard to giftedness; impostor syndrome; feeling too different from others; asynchronous development; divergent thinking; intense sensitivity and empathy; existential depression…
“All my gifted female clients with an eating disorder shared six characteristics, namely:
> personal identity that does not include being gifted
> debilitating perfectionism
> excessive need to please others
> experience of isolation and loneliness
> stressful transitions during onset of disorder”
From her article “Counseling Gifted Females with Eating Disorders” – Advanced Development: A Journal on Adult Giftedness, Vol. 8, 1999.
Scarlett Johansson thinks a really skinny look is “unsexy.” That is also the case for many of us men who appreciate feminine beauty – and she is a wonderful example, along with other women mentioned here.
She says, “I try to stay fit and eat healthily, but I’m not anxious to starve myself and become unnaturally thin. I don’t find that look attractive on women and I don’t want to become part of that trend. It’s unhealthy and it puts too much pressure on women in general who are being fed this image of the ideal, which it is not.
“I think America has become obsessed with dieting… I also think that being ultra-thin is not sexy at all. Women shouldn’t be forced to conform to unrealistic and unhealthy body images that the media promote. I don’t need to be skinny to be sexy.”
From my post on Women and Talent: Scarlett Johansson on negative body image: “I don’t need to be skinny to be sexy.”
Actor, producer, director Drew Barrymore has expressed a similar perspective that seems to me positive and realistic:
“My responsibility is to keep myself in a certain level of shape and health. But my body type is my body type, and I am not going to starve myself. And you can’t win…. Nobody has it all. We all have our attributes, and you have to be grateful for those.” [Premiere, Nov. 2000]
That kind of healthy self-regard may not be something you can easily “choose.”
Anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphia are serious disorders, and may have complex psychological origins and multiple mental health aspects.
An eating disorder may be life-threatening; it may have been a factor in the recent death of Brittany Murphy.
But if you are a girl or woman even without a clinical disorder, but experience being overly concerned with looking like an airbrushed model or actress on a magazine cover, or many tv and movie stars, it might be worth asking how much that concern (and maybe excessive exercising and dieting) is deflecting your energies from other, perhaps more gratifying forms of creative self-expression. Just asking. Though what do I know? I am not of the female persuasion.
Perfectionism posts on the High Ability site
Self concept / self esteem articles
Body image quotes, books etc
Eating Disorders quotes, books etc
my article The Dark Side of Beauty