Two actors took home Oscars on Sunday for roles that required them to lose a significant amount of weight. Christian Bale won in the Best Supporting Actor category for his portrayal of ex-boxer Dickie Eklund in “The Fighter” and Natalie Portman scored the Best Actress prize for her turn as delusional ballerina Nina Sayers in “Black Swan.” Is the Hollywood reaction to on-the-job weight loss different for male actors than it is for female actors? Reality Bites Back author Jennifer Pozner posted this observation on Facebook just prior to the Academy Awards broadcast:
Oscar night pre-event musings: Black Swan is a case study in how Hollywood rewards–even demands–eating disorders from actresses. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis got near-skeletal for their film. Entertainment media consider this biz as usual for actresses, yet freaked out over Christian Bale’s “remarkable” weight loss for The Fighter.
Pozner makes an important point. Both Bale and Portman have been critically lauded for sculpting their bodies in their dedication to the craft. But let’s keep the dedication in perspective. Actresses lose extreme amounts of weight all the time in Hollywood. With very few exceptions, ultra-thinness is a job requirement for women who want to get (or stay) on the A-list. Most are on semi-starvation diets–not necessarily for one specific role, but because a serious commitment to dieting is a necessity if they want to get any role. Entertainment media fuels this weight obsession and then feeds it to the public in the form of countless rehashed stories about what female stars are–or aren’t–eating, which sadistic personal trainer they’re working out with, and how it’s all just so healthy and amazing and life-changing.
Mila Kunis admitted that losing weight for “Black Swan” got her into an eating disordered mindset, saying that she promised her terrified mother she wouldn’t let the physical transformation affect her but that, “it might take me a little while to be OK with having a little fat on me.” Unfortunately, that unsettling revelation didn’t stop Ryan Seacrest from stopping her on the Oscars red carpet to ask exactly how she shed a dangerous percentage of her body weight because “a lot of people watching might want to lose that amount too.” Hmmm, now picture Seacrest asking Christian Bale to share his weight loss secrets for viewers. Doesn’t quite compute, does it?
A recent Washington Post article explores how often Oscars are awarded to actors and actresses who have undergone some dramatic physical transformation for a part. Weight loss is one of those transformations that generates Oscar buzz. But when it’s a woman shedding the pounds, the press junket questions tend to move quickly from what a grueling artistic process it must have been to more of a straight-up how did you do it? No, really. Give us the specifics. That fixation on food, workouts, clothing size, calorie counting, and designer water guzzling sounds all too familiar. It’s the go-to template of every celebrity profile–if said celebrity happens to be female. In effect, the line between what’s “shocking!” and what’s just your average, everyday weight-watching mania starts to get very blurry.
While there is an increasing amount of appearance-related pressure on men, there is not a universal assumption that guys are all hoping to fit into a smaller size, or that they all should be trying lose a few pounds. When Christian Bale starves himself so he can look like a drug addict, he’s respected for flexing his method acting muscles. When Natalie Portman starves herself to look like a ballerina, the question looms: Is there really such a difference between the weight-obsessed ballet world and weight-obsessed Hollywood?