Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Media, Self Esteem and Eating Disorders

"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" (Kate Moss), has become a well known and almost accepted catch phrase.
We are regularly reminded that anything other than being thin with a model figure is unacceptable. Most people unconsciously and consciously strive to look better, become fitter, and lose weight. We will only be happy when we do this, we tell ourselves.
The perception that celebrities stay so skinny so effortlessly not only inceases the pressure on ordinary people, but it also increases pressure on their peer group. Articles that report Jennifer Aniston, Gywenth Paltrow and Charlize Theron's strict diet and exercise regimes make the rest of us feel inadequate. "How come they can get it so right in their already busy and stressful lives?"
Medical research shows that people who develop Eating Disorders (EDs) have a predisposition thereto, which includes addictive traits such as bulimia and obesity and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) traits in anorexia.
A recovering bulimic said, "when people ask how I could have purged as a bulimic, I liken it to smoking: You crave a cigarette and feel better after having one even though you know it is bad for your health and could be the death of you."
Some people may have an an inborn tendency to use food as a coping mechanism, similar to the way that some people use substances. This leads to feelings of low self esteem and a struggle to maintain control. It is then highly likely that an ED will develop as soon as life becomes unmanageable.
An ED is similar to an abusive partner and likes nothing better than to tell you that you are not good enough. It gathers evidence in many ways including media images which promote impossible thinness. Impossible thinness becomes possible by restricting, binging and purging to maintain control over appearance in a world that does not tolerate anything less than the ideal figure.
Instead of hiding anorexic bodies under baggy clothes, sufferers today flaunt it. The world congratulates you for being thinner and the cycle perpetuates until crisis unfolds. It is impossible to keep succeeding while your body is starving.
Recently Lady Gaga had the courage to come out about how she has suffered with anorexia and bulimia since the age of 15. Her disclosure was in direct retaliation to criticisms directed at her for weight gain. She has had to endure a great deal of scrutiny directly since becoming famous, and indirectly by media ideals prior to her fame.

"This is me, accept me as I am and show some compassion" is what the 26-year-old is saying. But most people know that without loving and accepting yourself, there is little you can do to get the world to love and accept you. Lady Gaga is asking for compassion, but does she really know how to show compassion for herself? Can we assume that since Lady Gaga gained weight she is in recovery from her ED? Or has her disorder evolved to binge eating as a new way of coping?

Constant self criticism and peer pressure for not being good enough is what keeps an ED thriving in a person resulting in low self esteem, a tendency to suppress emotions and a desire to live up to others' expectations. How does one learn to be authentic under all these pressures?
The truth is that in a mean and unforgiving world one needs to find oneself, to love oneself and to express oneself.
How do celebrities do this, when one is scooped up, usually as a teen, encouraged to uphold a false ideal, to entertain, to play to the public and become what others want one to be?
Celebrities are idealised and expected never to suffer from low self esteem or self doubt. When celebrities do show vulnerability the media zooms in to sell a good story rather than to show compassion. It is very difficult for someone with an ED or an addiction to hold onto their sense of self and it must be that much harder if that person is a celebrity and famous.
Many celebrities die young (as seen in the "27 Club phenomenon" Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse) from premature death as a result of substance abuse or suicide/mental illness.
Lady Gaga has broken free from the cycle and disclosed her struggles with an ED as opposed to keeping up appearances and trying furiously to please the public and lose the weight they criticise her for gaining. Her message has been bold and clear: Our society is sick and there is little compassion for being human rather than a "photo-shopped" ideal.
But is her statement enough to change the ideals of the world?
And what are we doing to help?

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