Claire Mysko - author, speaker, consultant

Katharine McPhee’s Shape Cover: The Problem With Celebrity Body Image Role Models

January 22nd, 2010 · 6 Comments

Whenever an actress or pop star comes forward to talk about her struggle with an eating disorder or poor body image, I say a little prayer that she will find true health. I also hope that she’ll speak responsibly about recovery and self-acceptance. Unfortunately, I’m usually disappointed.

The fact is that getting over an eating disorder (or the murkier but more common problem of disordered eating) involves getting away from an obsession with weight, and that’s darn near impossible to do if you happen to be a celebrity–a job that requires you to go on the record about your exercise and diet “secrets” if you want to stay on the publicity train.

Take Katharine McPhee. The former American Idol deserves a lot of credit for being so open about her bulimia treatment, but she’s also got a new album to promote. So there she is on the cover of Shape magazine, talking about her “stronger, sleeker body.” In the interview, McPhee says that her weight loss is due to exercise alone–she claims she doesn’t diet–but as hortense of Jezebel points out, whatever anti-diet message she hopes to send is buried among cover lines like “Stop Winter Weight Gain,” “Eat This, Fight Fat,” and “Drop 10 Lbs”:

[S]eeing a confessed bulimic in a bikini on the cover of a fitness magazine, surrounded by articles on how to blast fat and cut calories, sets off a ton of alarm bells: the entire push of magazines like Shape and Self is that thin=healthy, and that weight loss=fitness, two very warped ideas of both health and body image that are dissected pretty handily during ED treatment.

Courtney Thorne-Smith also battled eating disorders and has spoken out about how the intense pressure to be thin in Hollywood contributed to her struggles. She is now doing commercials for Atkins, which is carefully marketed as the Atkins “lifestyle” and “nutritional approach” (similar to the Weight Watchers “stop dieting, start living” re-branding). But let’s call a spade a spade. Calorie and carb restriction are not on the list of recommended approaches for those recovering from eating disorders.

Other stars who have at one time been heralded for their curves and their positive stance on body image have gone on to publicly diet. Jennifer Love Hewitt famously railed against the paparazzi who took an unflattering photo of her in a bikini, making a statement for the sake of “all the girls out there that are struggling with their body image.” Yet just a few short months later, she was on the cover of Us Weekly talking about how she lost “18 Lbs in Ten Weeks!” In a more recent development, Sara Rue, the plus-sized star of “Less than Perfect” has signed on to be a spokesperson for Jenny Craig.

It’s hard to be hard on these women when you consider what they’re up against. To stay on top in Hollywood, you’ve got to be thin and you’ve got to be willing talk about how you stay thin. And if you’re not a skinny little thing? Well, you’d better be prepared to come out about how you plan to get skinnier. After all, weight and diet questions are staples in every celebrity profile and red carpet interview.

Of course everyone has a right to go on a diet if that’s the path they choose. But stars who have been outspoken about their eating disorders and/or their efforts to promote healthy body image send an especially confusing message when they turn around and tout their weight loss in magazines and TV ads: Love your body, ladies! You can conquer that disordered eating. But wait, wouldn’t you be sooo much happier if you lost a few pounds?

Tags: body image

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Julie // Jan 22, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    This is a really well written and insightful post on what is a really murky and difficult area. Well done - I really enjoyed reading it Claire.

  • 2 Margarita Tartakovsky // Jan 22, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Excellent post, Claire!

    I was actually thinking of writing a post for Weightless on how I wished Shape would’ve handled Katharine McPhee’s eating disorder (I still might :) - i.e., taking it as an opportunity to discuss the realities of eating disorders and how to find treatment. You know, instead of making it an afterthought.

    I realize that this might be too much to ask for from a fitness/diet magazine. But the editors really could’ve taken this as an opportunity to educate readers. These magazines get a wide readership, so they could reach many individuals.

  • 3 Claire // Jan 25, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Margarita, I’ve struggled with the question of whether eating disorder coverage in fitness and diet-focused magazines is helpful or hurtful. On the one hand, you’re right about the large readership of women who really need this info. But as much as we need visibility and awareness, we also need consistent messages. Consistency is not something we’re going to get from these publications, where you can find eating disorder resources on one page and fat-burning tips on the next. It’s really is a tough call.

    Julie, thanks for your comment. Glad you liked the post.

  • 4 Margarita Tartakovsky // Feb 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Great point, Claire! The inconsistent messages are a huge problem. I’m not sure what’s the best way to handle these kinds of stories.

    But perhaps even a short article on eating disorder resources (websites, books) and/or effective treatments would help.

    Still, I do see what you mean.

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