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The Myth of the Ideal Body

It seems as if a week doesn’t go by without the mainstream media reporting on another celebrity going into rehab for a mental health issue.  It used to be fairly typical to discover that many of these visits to treatment facilities involved an issue with alcohol abuse or chemical dependency.  Tabloid coverage of these stories were often written as salacious exposes which attempted to point to decadent lives of privilege and excess as the source of the problem.  Little serious consideration of the true underlying causes of such disorders was included in the content of the media’s coverage.  However, recently a number of high-profile performers and role models have come forward to share harrowing tales of their struggles with eating disorders.  Given that these individuals are admired and emulated, the narrative provided by reporters has, thankfully, changed.   Perhaps that reason for this has to do with the growing number of individuals, neither famous nor in the public eye, also suffering with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or compulsive overeating disorder.

Portia De Rossi Eating Disorder TreatmentOne needn’t be a scholar or researcher to acknowledge that societal attitudes and cultural behavior are inextricably interwoven with our notions of who we are and how we look.   Further influencing our perception is the constant barrage of media imagery promoting rail-thin models and desperately skinny celebrities as the sort of person everyone aspires to be.  The underlying financial model of this ongoing deception is insidious.  Pictures of celebrities attract viewers and readers and, as a result, revenue for the media outlets increases.  The pressure on those in the public eye is crushing, especially when one considers that should an individual appear on the beach with less than rock-hard abs or carrying more weight than when they are at the ideal, photogenic best, it’s a treated as a lead story.  Sadly this sort of microscopic attention to fluctuations in weight and body image has spread from the media to the home, the schoolyard and the workplace.

Although morbid obesity certainly represents a serious health concern for many individuals, the manner in which the problem has been addressed has had the negative effect of reinforcing misguided notions of what actually represents an “ideal” body shape and weight.  In truth, the proper weight for any individual is that at which they are healthy and fit.  Focusing on losing weight as the answer to the widespread issue of obesity misses the mark.  Nonetheless, many medical professionals advise their patients to lose weight as a strategy to attain better health despite the danger of instilling anxiety and low self-esteem in individuals who are already dealing with a world in which “thin is in” and “fat” is the source of ridicule.

Studies have shown that overweight people are regularly discriminated against in the work place and that obese children are 63 percent more likely to be bullied no matter what their sex, socioeconomic position, race or type of school attended.  Surely the social problem is as great, not more so, than the supposed public health crisis of obesity.

As noted above, the hospitalization of teen star Demi Lovato and the wrenching biography chronicling her struggle with an eating disorder by actress Portia De Rossi have been treated respectfully by most journalists as cautionary and instructive tales rather than tabloid fodder.  It is but a start, but hopefully the struggles of who have risked their lives to stay “perfect” for their public will alter the way our society at large views the impossible standards we impose on our bodies and our selves.  It will take a while for cultural perceptions to shift, but the well-being of this and future generations depends on it.