Chasing an Illusion

The body image of the famous is often fake and unrealistic, but attempting to copy it can lead to devastating consequences.

For most Americans, watching Black Swan on a Friday night is simple entertainment, just something to view while chowing down on grossly over-buttered and salted popcorn, a large soft drink and a box of overpriced candy.

But is it really only that?

Controversy has risen over the reports of blogger Kate Torgovnick of The Frisky that known pro-anorexia sites such as “Thinspire Me” and “SuperSkinnyUs” have begun to use the frail, gaunt bodies of ballerinas as realistic models for the human body. Actresses Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, the two stars of the film, were required to lose more than 20 pounds from their already slender builds, bringing their weight down to shocking levels and weakening their bodies and health — and this is how some Americans try to live their life every day.

It’s no secret that being beautiful, flawless and, above all, thin is important to the American public. In fact, 25 percent of men and 45 percent of women can be found on a diet on any given day, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, and 35 percent of those dieters will begin to diet obsessively. And, unfortunately, 20 to 25 percent of those people will develop an eating disorder.

The side effects of these illnesses have been presented in every health class ever taken — anorexia can lead to a lower blood pressure and temperature, anemia, weakness, thinning hair and bones and (worst-case scenario) death. Bulimia can cause an inflamed throat, swollen glands, decaying tooth enamel, intestinal and esophagus irritation, kidney problems, severe dehydration and again, death.

So why risk it?

As a dancer, I know how hard it is to feel good about myself. Every competition, convention and practice is a chance to look at others and see how fit and thin they are, and think about how that makes them so much better than me. In a world where we’re told to suck in our stomachs as early as the tender age of 8, it’s hard to keep a clear perspective.

It could start because of anything. One snide comment or the flood of attention to some celebrity’s weight loss can trigger a shrinking self-esteem, and the affected person wants to lose some weight because she thinks it will make her feel better about herself. Others may go through traumatic events, like a major transition to a new place, family problems, social issues or illness, and they feel like their diet is the only thing in their life they can control. So they start eating healthier — smaller portions, more fruits and vegetables, no junk food.

But it’s not enough.

So they start exercising more, eating less and becoming more and more obsessed with the number on the scale.

Pretty soon they’re eating once a day and dropping down to an unhealthy weight. Yet every time they look in the mirror, they don’t see the skeletal ribs or the protruding cheekbones that everyone else sees; they just see more “fat.”

It’s a painful cycle, and it is hardly ever stopped by the people it’s destroying. They don’t even have a choice in the matter most of the time, because eating disorders are considered mental illnesses, as diagnosed by the National Institute of Mental Health. And once they finally receive help, it normally takes teams of therapists, doctors and dietitians to turn their lives around.

Naturally, it’s those aged 13 to 17 that often develop eating disorders because of the common tendencies to feel insecure and awkward at this age. The most vulnerable are those involved in activities that stress a certain size and/or body image like dance or gymnastics. A study by Dr. Jorunn Sundgot–Borgen in Sports Medicine found that 20 percent of athletes involved in such sports had tendencies toward eating disorders. Causes could be beginning to diet at an early age, the extreme exercise of one’s athletic routine, hope to gain a competitive edge and a heightened awareness of the body. They are often influenced by comparisons between themselves and other athletes at smaller weight levels, as well as pressure from family and coaches. Another study by L.W. Rosen & D. O. Hough in The Physician and Sports Medicine has found that 75 percent of gymnasts who were told they were too heavy often had dangerous dieting methods or eating disorders.
On the show Make It or Break It, character Kaylie Cruz exemplified the very real problem that athletes often face: the need to train themselves into anorexia or other disorders because of pressures to be thin enough to compete at a certain levels of difficulty. In fact, eating disorders make it harder for them because muscle tone and strength will fall when the body is at such a malnourished state, and body fat will disappear last.

Realistically, we have to understand that those models and actresses we aspire to look like are not realistic. The average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and 140 pounds. Those “role models” are 117 pounds at 5 feet 11 inches and are actually thinner than 98 percent of American women, according to the National Eating Disorders Association — meaning that, clearly, we’re not alone in our struggle to be as thin as them. They spend thousands to millions of dollars a year trying to be pretty, and it’s only for the sole purpose of keeping their job. Being that small will never be healthy, and nothing can be gained from trying to do so (except our weight back when we have to go into recovery).
And finally, if you’re one of the four out of every 10 Americans who has suffered or know someone who suffers from an eating disorder, get help. Regardless of how beautiful (or not) you think you are now, you are infinitely better than you would be once hurting, starving and slowly killing yourself. Seventeen magazine has the right idea starting the Seventeen Body Peace Treaty, uniting thousands of readers and dozens of celebrities to sign a pledge stating their commitment to improving their body image. As some of the vows say, “ Realize that the mirror can reflect only what’s on the surface of me, not who I am inside. Know that I’m already beautiful just the way I am.”

Brianna Leyden