Popular Culture Meets Psychology

Understanding ourselves through pop culture.

Oops, She Did It Again- There's Hope For Us All

Britney's fit bod is back. We shouldn't care, but we do!

This is a one-question multiple choice test....

1. When I see this before and after picture of Britney Spearsimage

    a. I am happy for her and have hope for my own battle with the bulge

    b. I am envious

    c. I realize that her weight is of societal, if not global importance

    d. I am indifferent

I don't believe I would be the first psychologist to suggest that we are a society obsessed with weight...and health; so it isn't it ironic that in "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals", Michael Pollan describes the 'American Paradox'. It is the notion that in countries like France and Italy, so-called 'unhealthy' foods and the very process of eating are more thoroughly enjoyed then they are in America, where, in spite of our obsession with health, calories and high fructose corn syrup, guilt seems to accompany every mouthful, and obesity and diet-related diseases reign supreme.

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If, for one moment, you doubt that we are a food-obsessed culture, just consider the endless plethora of diet and diet books; cook book, cooking shows and cable networks devoted to food preparation and eating; the ever-changing landscape of nutrition and health gurus and governmental guidelines; food movements both fast and slow; epidemics of bulimia, anorexa and obesity; media and advertising feeding frenzies, and of course, the complex legacy of transitioning from natural industrialized food supply, distribution and consumption. Faced with this deafening 'dietary cacophony' (a phrase used by Harvey Levenstein in his Paradox of Plenty, and borrowed from French sociologist Claude Fischler) of information on how, what, where and why to eat, it is no small wonder that we are seemingly befuddled about how to feed ourselves, so much so, that Pollan suggests "instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of cuisine, or even the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids and diet books, and we place faith in science to sort out for us what culutre once did with rather more success." .

So, you may ask, what does any of this have to do with Britney Spears and her most recent physical metamorphosis? Well, for one, images of the 'new', slimmed-down Britney are everywhere, and America seems poised to re-invite her into its heart without knowing or caring about the full back story. As long as she is slim and sexy, many of us may be willing to embrace the possibility that all is well. Hope does spring eternal, afterall, and certainly we wish her well.

Britney's weight (and life) fluctuations are fascinating, and the popular press constantly reminds us how important our weight is.  They do so by providing a 24/7 flood of pictures of celebrities in their bathing suits, underwear, evening-wear and formal wear...everywhere, all-the time.  To name a few...Oprah, Jessica Simpson, Wynona Judd, Nicole Richie, Queen Latifah, Valerie Bertinelli and Kirstie Alley. Who knows; perhaps in the near future, we will be able (for a modest fee tacked onto our cellular bill) to receive a Twitter announcement from the bathroom scale of your favorite star.

Please note that when famous men gain and lose the pounds, it is typically in the course of preparing for a movie or television role, and not in response to the emotional vicissitudes of their lives (but we'll save that for another blogpost).

Back to Britney. Psychology and Science have teamed up to help us understand the complex network of factors that influence our wieght, and that barring hormonal, endocrine, metabolic, medication-related and other physiological and physical conditions affecting body mass, that our eating habbits and food choices are particularly succeptible to and influenced by external factors, such as location, time of day, the company we share, the mood we are in (or think we are in), and/or a host of other triggers we may not even be aware of. And this makes me wonder how we are influenced by a constant flood of images of clebrity before-and- after pictures? How powerful a trigger must it be to see these gods and goddesses vaccilate so in their efforts to maintain a stable body weight...whatever that may be?! I do believe that these images and our fascination with celebrtiy bodies reveals just how dependent we, as a culture are on 'outside' messages of well being. Somwhere along the line, we have come to elevate celebrities bodies to the level of popular ideal. As their weight goes, so goes our pereceptions of our own success and failure at weight management.

But, perhaps there is a bigger picture here; one that psychology cannot fully illuminate. Perhaps we need to appeal to the ideas and insights of other social science disciplines.  Two that come to mind are Medical Sociology and Cultural Anthropology. The field of Medical Sociology, a sub-discipline of sociology asks us to consider how societies define (or construct) concepts of health and illness, both physical and mental. The mission of the Medical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association is to help us to understand, among other topics, the subjective experience of health and illness, weight loss and weight gain and our overall sense of physical well-being. The 'the normal body', is an elusive construct, one that we co-create through the various media of popular culture. Our fascination, or more accurately, our obsession with the celebrity body may simply be a manifestation of our personal internal stuggle to achieve some sense of normal. And our physical bodies are the frontline representation to the world of how normal (or abnormal) we are.

In the field of cultural anthropology, a subdiscipline of Anthopology, the work of Mary Douglas stands out to me, for she noted that our bodies may be a microcosm for society. In her Purity and Danger as well as  Essays in the Sociology of Perception, she asks us to consider how it is that we come to consider the standards we use to define ourselves in relation to society, and in particular how our bodies are a marker for that relationship.  Obesity might represent a polluted body and as such, a reflection of a greater societal pollution; whereas a fit and slim body would in turn relfect more positively on the self and the society in which it is embedded.

It makes sense, at least to me, that as the weights of celebrities go up and down, so too may our own sense of personal well-being and security, as well the perception of our society as healthy or ill. Certainly, we react strongly, either positively and negatively to fluctuations in the financial market, the climate and/or geo-political events. We have been conditioned through our insatiable consumption of the media to look outward for a sense of inner peace, rather than inward, and we seem to grasp onto any external standards of 'normalcy', not the least of which is celebrity body mass.

I may be making more of Britney's waistline than I should. But then again, perhaps I am not. I will leave that for you to ponder.

Lawrence Rubin, psychologist and counseling professor, is co-author with psychiatrist Mike Brody of Messages: Self Help Through Popular Culture.

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