Surprise! Elle Magazine Editor Doesn’t Really Care About Eating Disorders

Nope, no Photoshopping. Nothing to see here, move along now.

Confession: sometimes I read women’s magazines. They’re fun to make critique and laugh at.

This time, though, I didn’t even get past the magazine’s front matter before finding something objectionable. In her opening letter for Elle magazine’s August issue, Editor-in-Chief Roberta Myers discusses the recent legislation in the U.K. that would require digitally altered photographs of models to be labeled as such. You can practically feel the derision and dismissal dripping off the page:

So now the National Academy of Sciences is getting into the act, trying to define what ‘impossibly beautiful’ means. In response to legislation pending in the UK to require digitally altered photos to be labeled out of concern for public health, as well as the American Medical Association’s campaign against changing pictures ‘in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,’ two Dartmouth computer scientists proposed a ‘metric’ at a recent NAS meeting designed to rate how much retouched photos have ‘strayed from reality.’ The authors noted that ‘highly idealized’ images have been associated with eating disorders, such as anorexia.

Scare quotes aside, I have the feeling that Myers knows exactly what “impossibly beautiful” means, even if the idea of defining it operationally seems a bit silly. I do think that regulatory measures like these should be approached with a certain degree of healthy skepticism, because government regulation should not be undertaken lightly and without good evidence. But Myers isn’t critiquing it skeptically. She’s sticking her head in the sand and denying that a problem exists.

Furthermore, the regulations don’t even propose to ban severely Photoshopped images, but merely to place labels on them. Is putting an extra little bit of text on the bottom of an image really such a burden for Myers? I think not. Note that some countries are going even further–Israel, for instance, banned the use of underweight models in advertising entirely.

Myers continues:

Yet according to David Scott Rosen, MD…eating disorders are as old as the Bible. They cropped up in popular literature 200 years ago–long before Photoshop but right around the time when John Singer Sargent painted his famous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), a most flattering oil-on-canvas portrait that left out many a “flaw.”

I couldn’t find a citation for this, but it’s probably true. However, nobody’s claiming that eating disorders exist solely because of unrealistic beauty standards in the media. It’s not like a perfectly healthy young woman (or man, but that’s a slightly different conversation) opens up Elle magazine, sees a picture of a thin model, and immediately starts starving herself. Eating disorders arise from a complicated interaction of genetics, family life, and the surrounding culture. They involve complex cognitive processes, such as the ones described in this study. As another example, research shows that people determine attractiveness based on what they have seen the most. So if you’ve been looking at images of impossibly thin women for your entire life, that may be what you’re going to find attractive–and that’s what you may aspire to be.

We can’t prevent genes that predispose one to eating disorders from being passed down, and we can’t make it illegal for parents to teach their daughters that their appearance is the most important thing and that one should use unhealthy means to maintain it (though, with more education, we might be able to prevent that). We can, however, place restrictions on the images that permeate our media.

Furthermore, Myers conveniently ignores the fact that eating disorders have been growing more and more prevalent over the past century, especially among young women. Studies have also shown possible links between media that promotes thinness and eating disorders. It is impossible to establish a causative link with certainty, but that’s because 1) nothing is ever certain in science, and 2) we live within a culture that promotes and glorifies thinness. You can’t really evaluate phenomena like this accurately when you exist within the system that you’re trying to evaluate.

But luckily, studies done with non-Western cultures are very revealing. One extremely compelling study showed that girls in Fiji, who previously had little exposure to Western media, became much more likely to show signs of disordered eating after watching Western television shows for the first time.

Several Google searches brought up countless studies like these. Myers seems to consider them irrelevant here. She continues:

My point is that trying to define “impossible beauty,” and then regulate its dissemination by putting warning labels on retouched images, seems rather preposterous. You know, my chocolate bar never looks quite as creamy as it does in the ads; cars are never quite that sexy and sleek; and the milk in my cereal bowl never looks quite that white. Oh, wait! It’s not milk at all! It’s some gelatinous concoction meant to look like milk while it stays sturdy under hours of hot lights. Shall we label those photos, too?

This passage is as laughable as it is offensive. First of all, cool slippery slope fallacy, bro. Second, while one may argue over the sleekness of a car or the whiteness of a bowl of milk, it is completely unmistakable when magazines alter photos of models such that they appear to thin to actually be alive.

Third, and most importantly, the comparisons Myers makes are flippant to the point of inanity. The worst thing that can happen in her examples is that one’s chocolate bar isn’t creamy enough. The worst thing that can happen when magazines use Photoshop to excess is that, you know, someone develops anorexia and dies.

As I mentioned, the link between digitally altered images and eating disorders probably isn’t simple. But research is increasingly showing that it is there. It is worth noting that Myers never makes any comments about her own magazine’s use of Photoshop, which tells me that she’s fully aware of what she’s doing and is just willfully playing dumb. She knows. And she’s threatened by it, because things are starting to change.

But she’s not done. She goes on to cite an article in this month’s issue:

I wonder what the National Academy would have to say about the photograph we ran in this issue of novelist and essayist Ann Bauer, who writes so eloquently about growing up “ugly”–bearing a steady stream of abuse about her looks from classmates, strangers, and even lovers.

This bit confirms for me what I already suspected–that magazines like Elle print articles like this solely from the purpose of distracting people from the role they play in upholding our society’s beauty standards. These magazines can trot these articles out as examples of their commitment to portraying “women of all shapes and sizes,” when, in fact, they use these women as tokens.

The article in question is indeed a beautiful article. But what’s ironic is that Myers doesn’t even realize how magazines like her own have contributed to the bullying and abuse that women like Bauer face. Of course, people have always valued beauty and mistreated those who are deemed “ugly.” But lately, the box into which women must fit in order to be considered beautiful has been shrinking, whereas the “ugly” box has been growing. Magazines like Elle may not be the only (or even the main) causes of this trend, but it would be naive not to implicate them in it.

Furthermore, that photo of Bauer that Myers is so proud to have featured? It takes up one corner of a page and measures about two by three inches. Compare this to the dozens of full-page Photoshopped models in the magazine.

The most telling (and touching) part of Bauer’s piece, to me, is the end, in which she describes visiting Hungary with her husband and going to the opera in Budapest:

I turned and found myself looking into a full-length mirror. And I saw something I’d never seen before: myself, in a sea of women who looked just like me.

[...]Everywhere I looked in that lighted glass, there were women with large features, deep-set eyes, rounded cheeks, riotous hair, and delicate-yet-meaty little bodies. We were, in other words, an army of ugly people.

Only, for the first time in my memory, we weren’t. I wasn’t. I was normal, even conventionally attractive. Stylish. Interesting. Sexy. Simply that.

I stood in front of that mirror in the Hungarian State Opera House, watching couples mill. Men holding the arms and hands of dozens of women who could’ve been my sisters, mother, and daughters, tipping their heads back, kissing them lightly, gazing with naked admiration at faces like mine.

Bauer shows, ultimately, that she is not ugly. It is American culture that makes her out to be so. In Hungary, women who look like her are not bullied. They are not sent anonymous emails about how ugly they are. They are not denied jobs or pressured to lose weight and get plastic surgery.

This makes Myers’ stubborn refusal to examine the potential effects of her magazine even more ironic (and upsetting). Magazine editors seem to feel that they are being solely blamed for the devastating experiences of many women (and, increasingly, men), but no informed researcher or critic would say that magazines directly cause eating disorders. We have to examine this phenomenon as a system of interacting elements–the mass media, politics, families, and individual brains and bodies–in order to begin to understand how to prevent unhealthy beauty standards, poor body image, and eating disorders.

We can’t start without making sure that everyone knows that the images they see around them every day of their lives are not realistic. They’re not something to aspire to, because they cannot be obtained–except perhaps at a very high cost.

The editorial this photo belongs to is totally unironically called “The Surreal World.” Photo credit: Elle August 2012

“If You’re Fat, Then What Am I?”

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about body image and eating disorders. I can’t even begin to address all of them here. But there’s one I’ve been thinking about lately–that problems with body image are caused solely by comparing yourself to unrealistic standards, and can be solved by simply comparing yourself to the “real” bodies around you instead.

First, a disclaimer–I’ve never had anorexia or bulimia. However, I’m not entirely out of my depth here. Had I gone to see a psychiatrist at some point prior to this year, he or she would probably have taken note of my obsessive calorie-counting, severe dietary restrictions, compulsive weight-checking and fat-pinching, and general conviction that I was “fat,” and diagnosed me with something called “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or “EDNOS.” This means that one doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any of the eating disorders, but is definitely disordered nonetheless.

(For the record, I’m much better now.)

Anyway, one thing I remember very vividly from my years of thinking I’m fat was one particular response that I often encountered. Some people (mostly other girls), upon learning how I felt, would respond with this: “If you’re fat, then what am I?”

Now, I understand exactly where this comes from. Many of my peers were probably insecure, too, and it makes sense that they would be reminded of their own insecurity once I mentioned mine. Since I was indeed thinner than many other people, that response makes sense on some level. If I’m fat, they must be obese!

But it doesn’t really work that way. It would certainly be convenient if people’s self-concepts were always rational and based on reality. But the very definition of mental problems is that they’re distortions of reality–they’re unrealistic. That’s why grief after the death of a loved one isn’t considered a mental disorder, but depression is.

And that’s exactly why “If you’re fat then what am I” is not an effective response. At the time, I didn’t give two shits what other people were. It didn’t enter my thought process. In my case, my conviction that I was fat was mostly caused by cultural factors; namely, the fact that Russians are fucking preoccupied with beauty and weight. Absolutely preoccupied. It was also caused by years of ballet lessons, my depressive personality (which magnifies personal flaws), the belief that I could lose 10-20 pounds and still be healthy, fear that guys wouldn’t find me attractive if I had folds on my stomach, and many other causes.

For other people with body image and eating issues, the causes may be different. Some people develop the feeling that they’re unable to control their environment, so they control the only thing they can–their body. Others may start out actually overweight, start to diet and lose weight, and find that they’re addicted to the feeling of getting thinner. Others develop an overwhelming guilt whenever they eat, especially when they eat unhealthily, and they start to purge after eating. Some may have friends who constantly talk about their bodies’ flaws (remember Mean Girls?) and start to think the same way.

Whatever the causes are, these issues are much too complicated to be defeated by a simple glance at someone who weighs more than you.

Of course, “If you’re fat then what am I” also fails one of the most basic requirements of being a good listener–don’t change the subject to yourself. If your friend feels crappy and needs to talk to you, don’t make it about you. If your own issues are making it difficult for you to listen, tell your friend that. Sure, they might be disappointed that you can’t listen to them, but that’s much better than how they’re going to feel when you take their pain and turn it into a conversation about you and your weight.

It’s easy to resent people who, according to you, “should” be perfectly happy with their weight but are not. I can’t say I don’t get a twinge of annoyance whenever I witness a girl much smaller than me freaking out about her weight. But then I remind myself that she’s not me. Poor body image seems almost like a cliche among young women these days, but it’s so much more complex than you might think.

I Love My Body

[TMI Warning]

I’m going to say something women aren’t supposed to say–I love my body.

My favorite part of my body are my shoulders. I’m not entirely sure why; it’s an irrational feeling. During the summer I like to show them off as much as possible with halter-top shirts and dresses.

I also love my curves, but I try to keep those more covered up. Those are for me, and for whoever else has earned the right, to enjoy.

I love my legs. I have really strong legs from years of dancing, walking, and riding my bike all the time. My legs can do just about anything I want them to.

I love my stomach, which makes rolls when I slouch like most healthy stomachs do. When I want to look thinner I can suck it in, but I think it looks fine even when I don’t.

I love my thighs. They store most of my body’s fat, so it’s often hard to find jeans that will fit them. They jiggle. When I’m naked and I draw my thighs up to my stomach, it feels warm and comforting.

I love my hands. I have long fingers that are perfect for playing piano. The nails on my fingers are strange–they’re all different shapes. Some are rectangular, some are ovular, and some are nearly square.

I love my face. My bottom lip is much bigger than my top lip, and one of my eyes opens much wider than the other. My parents asked me if I wanted to have surgery to get that corrected, and for a while I did, but honestly, I’m terrified of surgery and I don’t really care that much about how wide my eyes can open. My eyes are either brown, hazel, or green; it depends.

I love my feet, which are too wide for many types of shoes and rather ugly because of ballet. I’ve had so many blisters on so many parts of my feet over the years, both from ballet and from my habit of wearing insensible shoes, but my feet have taken it all in stride.

My body is conventionally attractive, but that’s not why I love it. I love it because it’s always been there for me, because of the good sensations it provides, because I’m so intimately familiar with it, and because it’s all mine.

It wasn’t always this way. Until very recently, I hated my body, or thought I did. It was the same story–too fat, too weird, too asymmetrical, too disproportional. I pinched my thighs and stomach all the time. Sometimes I’d stop reading or doing homework and realize that, unthinkingly, my hand had drifted to my stomach and was grabbing it and trying to hide the extra fat.

When I dieted or exercised, it felt like I was punishing my body. I took a sick pleasure in this. I liked to make myself hungry, sweaty, and exhausted. I counted calories, and some days I ate as little as 700 calories. That qualifies as a starvation diet. There, I said to my body. Take that.

Things are very different now. When I exercise, I like to think about my muscles working. Sometimes I even touch them while I’m working out so that I can feel them move. When my muscles are sore, I feel like they’re happy and exhausted. I stretch them and imagine them thanking me.

When I try to diet, I enjoy the feeling of eating well and of not having too much food in my body. I hate feeling stuffed; I prefer small portions. When I’m dieting, I’m more mindful of what I eat, and I feel my body appreciating each bite, and I like that feeling.

People think that loving your body means either thinking it’s flawless or completely abandoning the idea of health or beauty. The media perpetuates this myth–only “perfect” people (who don’t exist anyway) should love their bodies, and those who are “flawed” but love them anyway must simply be blinding themselves.

It’s not true. I don’t think my body’s perfect at all. It has plenty of flaws, some of which I mentioned above. Some of those flaws I counteract–I tweeze my eyebrows, wear makeup, diet (sometimes), wear flattering clothes, and use lotion. Other flaws I genuinely don’t care about.

But don’t we love people who aren’t perfect? Don’t we love our favorite writers, even though they might’ve written a couple books we could barely get through? Don’t we love our childhood homes despite the peeling paint and faded crayon marks on the walls?

You don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and neither does your body. I don’t think I’m the only woman who knows this. But I’m one of the few who’s willing to stick up for my body and declare that I love it despite a culture that says that women ought to be ashamed of what they were born with.

My body is there for me even when no one else is. I refuse to devalue it.

Leggings Are Pants, End of Story

Does it cover her butt? Then it's clothing.

[TMI Warning]

Since most of the people who read this probably know me in person, I can probably assume that you, my reader, know how I look. Specifically, you may have noticed that I’m curvy.

And when I say curvy, I’m not using that as a euphemism for “fat,” because that’s not what I am. I’m curvy. Specifically, I have fairly large boobs and a rather large giant ass.

Despite our society’s idolization of hourglass-shaped women such as Marilyn Monroe and Kim Kardashian (neither of whom I am attempting to compare myself to except where waist-to-hip ratio is concerned), this is not a body type that the American fashion industry tends to keep in mind. According to the clothes you find in virtually any store, be it a Walmart or a Prada, American women come in one shape only–a stick. Sometimes it’s a very thin stick and sometimes it’s a very fat stick, but it’s still a stick.

Jeans, the staple of casual style, are unfortunately no exception. Here’s what happens when you have a big ass and you try to wear jeans. First of all, any size that actually fits around your ass and zips all the way up will generally be way too long for you and much too loose around your actual waist. When you sit down, the back of the jeans rides down and everyone from London to France can see your underpants. Your thighs, if they’re nice and juicy like mine, will be constricted by the jeans and it’ll sometimes hurt to sit. Putting the jeans on and taking them off will be a Herculean effort. Usually, the jeans will be way too tight in general your body will literally spill out of them at the top.

Needless to say, I don’t like jeans very much, and most girls with my proportions don’t either. So if we want to wear jeans like everyone else does, we have two options:

  • Be really uncomfortable.
  • Starve ourselves, because that’s the only way to rid a curvy body of its curves.

Needless to say, neither of those options sound particularly appealing. So during the warmer months, we wear lots of skirts and dresses. But fall, winter, and spring pose a problem. Many girls, myself included, prefer to wear leggings because they’re comfortable and stretchy and fit our proportions. Unfortunately, however, many people seem to believe that leggings are “not pants.” Why? Because they’re form-fitting. This has apparently even inspired a Huffington Post article (which, then again, may not be saying much).

What this means is that if you want to wear leggings, you must always choose a top that’s long enough to cover your butt, because God forbid anyone be able to discern the outline of your behind–not that jeans hide it either. However, when you have a large ass, it’s pretty hard to find tops long enough to cover it up completely, meaning that this style is best suited for stick-women, too.

Well, what can I say. I apologize deeply for the fact that my body isn’t of the shape that this particular culture values, and I offer my condolences to anyone who has ever been offended by the sight of the outline of my ass when I wear leggings.

Actually, just kidding. I’m not fucking sorry! This sartorial snobbery is ridiculous. Here’s a quick guide to identifying whether or not something qualifies as clothing. Does it cover up all the body parts that need to be covered up? If yes, then–ding-ding-ding!–it’s clothing.

And if you’re one of these rabid “but but but leggings aren’t pants!” people, then I’d suggest that you issue yourself a stern reminder of the fact that not everyone’s willing to starve to gain the ability to dress themselves in the way you’d like them to.

Still not convinced? Well, find me a pair of jeans that will fit these T&A, and then we’ll talk. ;)