When Food Is Family

Key ingredients in the eating disorder mix

Celebrities and Eating Disorders

What happens when stars put the spotlight on their own eating disorder?

Many of us have that star-struck interest—and sometimes even obsession—with celebrities and their lives. We live vicariously through them, and project our own unmet needs and dissatisfactions through fantasizing about their lives. And somehow who they are shakes out to being "better" than who we are.

Though we often find the need to idealize and sometimes idolize them, celebrities, after all, are also just people. We do not see their reality, their day-in-day-out ‘boring' routines and, most importantly, do not see the struggle and pain that underscores the lives of those actors who have eating disorders.

Given our interest in celebrities, I am often asked if these public figures can play a vital role in raising awareness about eating disorders, or if the personal sharing of their disorder does more to "glamorize" this serious issue that affects so many.

If a celebrity's goal is authentically to help others understand that the pressures Hollywood, our culture and media place on them can have a toxic effect—and not a glamorous one—then yes, their words to other sufferers can have impact and meaning. Furthermore, if an actor can reveal the deeper root of their eating disorders, then disclosure can be helpful.

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In this way, a celebrity that is willing to share beyond the surface pressures that affect them (i.e. media, fans) and authentically share about their own life experiences, vulnerabilities, self-esteem, and relational issues, can be very helpful for the millions of people that struggle with these same issues every day. When someone with an eating disorder sees a celebrity that has worked through many of the same issues they have had, this can help bring a new sense of hope and purpose to their recovery.

The problem, as I see it, has more to do with exposure for the celebrity. Does it really, for instance, help celebrities recover by revealing their eating disorder, or does it reinforce and further expose them to the vulnerabilities, insecurities, self-worth issues they have already been experiencing in life? I don't always think so, and some don't have a choice because the media has exposed these issues for them.

Some actors even take a harmful stance and use their eating disorder to further promote their own fame, or drive attention to their ability to stay thin. This gives a false—and very harmful—impression that can glamorize this disorder, and turn it into a fad for some. Those of us in the mental health field know that this is a mechanism to fend off psychological issues that have likely existed long before the eating disorder developed. Eating disorders are self-destructive, so "using" an eating disorder to be thin would not be a choice by someone who feels good about themselves, even an actor.

The message is that celebrities struggle too, and the degree to which someone needs to idealize or idolize the life of any celebrity reveals the degree to which that person is likely dissatisfied in their own life. Some fantasy about the life of actors is fun, intriguing and serves as a pleasant distraction. But eating disorders are serious business. If an actor has the grace and strength of character to disclose and maintain their own recovery and humility afterwards, then their words can be inspirational to others who are suffering.

Judy Scheel, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., author of When Food Is Family, is the Founder and Executive Director of Cedar Associates Foundation.

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