Our Culture’s Celebrity Weight Obsession. It’s Scarier Than You Think

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

My Body Mass Index (BMI) is the same as Brittney Spears's and one point less than Alicia Silverstone's. How do I know this? From a handy dandy online BMI calculator that (supposedly) compares your results to your favorite star's BMI. And if that weren't celebrity inspiration enough to keep on me on track with a New Year's diet plan, there are hundreds of other websites that obsess over every ounce of fat celebs gain or lose, hawk their diet and/or fitness plans, estimate their body weights and measurements for personal comparison, or simply extol who has shed the most pounds in recent months.

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"We are interested-and young women are obsessed-with celebrity weight because stars are our benchmark in terms of fashion, glamour, and beauty," TV Producer Alice Keens-Soper tells Yahoo! Shine. Keens-Soper, who helped create the BBC documentary "Super Slim Me" in which a faux want-to-be actress struggles to lose twenty pounds in eight weeks to become a perfect "Hollywood size zero," adds, "And we love to gloat about celebrities who have 'fallen,' i.e. who are 'too fat,' have 'lost it,' and have proved that they are as glamorous and 'real' as we mere mortals."

For some people, the media message that you can and should look like a celebrity is innocuous-just more white noise in a culture that bombards us with thousands of marketing images daily. For others, it can be deadly. Eating disorder expert Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, MD, FAED and executive director of the Oliver-Pyatt Centers, tells Yahoo! Shine, "People who are prone to eating disorders are more hardwired to be affected by these images. They can have a real impact on how we feel and think." For example, she points out a landmark study that investigated how Fijian girls and women were completely free of eating disorders until television was introduced to the island.

The most frightening nexus of celebrity worship and disordered thinking about body weight and image occurs on "pro ana" (pro-anorexia) and "celebrity thinspiration" websites and blogs. These sites are plastered with images of models and actresses at their most skeletal. They are also packed with tips on extreme dieting including fasting and purging. A user comment on one blog reads, "I'll do what I want and if I die, I'll die skinny :)." It's not surprising that these sites are often supported by advertisements for diet pills and programs.

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The flip side of the "celebrity thinspiration" coin is reality TV programs like "The Biggest Loser" which feature real people competing to lose the most weight fastest. Marjorie Nolan, RD, eating disorder specialist and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo! Shine that these shows "set people up to think they can lose ten pounds a week and feel like failures because they can't." Nolan speculates that contestants are eating under 1000 calories a day, not to mention exercising for hours. She points out to her clients that the "biggest losers" on television aren't dealing with work and family obligations, they have personal trainers, and they are under medical supervision 24/7.

According to Oliver-Pyatt, the bitter irony of the "War on Obesity" is that it has actually contributed to more weight gain and more eating disorders. She explains, "You might start with good intentions, but when a person gets into dieting or calorie restriction, it leads to weight cycling. You lose weight but the psychological deprivation and a slowed down metabolism cause a rebound weight gain."

She is concerned that children are being bombarded with the message that food and fat are scary. She points out there are a wide range of healthy body types. While we used to compare ourselves mainly to our families and neighbors, now we compare ourselves to images of stars and models whose job it is to have ultra slender bodies. "Not everybody is meant to be thin," she adds. "The lowest morbidity rate actually occurs at a BMI 24-29." Most BMI charts classify a BMI of 25 as overweight. "The fear of fat combined with the thousands of celebrity images a kid sees each day influences their global thinking process and can lead to eating disorders."

Oliver-Pyatt likes to use a coined word "omiteracy," which refers to what information and messages you chose not to pay attention to. "There is a temptation to lose your self in someone else's life," she says. "We could literally spend years connecting to a celebrity's life via the Internet, interfacing with a world which doesn't have a bearing on our own lives or circumstances." She thinks that, as a society, we need to look at this celebrity "feeding frenzy," and also individually "ask ourselves: 'what am I looking at and how is it effecting me?'"

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