When I was young, my mother, raised in a more sexist age, used to tell me "You can never be too rich or too thin." I didn't think about that saying for a long time, but watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Reunion last week, I was reminded of it. Watching these beautiful, insecure women display their angst, I'm ashamed to say, I felt not only empathy for their emotional pain, but a tiny bit of envy and schadenfreude, a very unmindful state involving feeling illicit pleasure at someone else's misery. This was not the case in watching the tortured unravelling of Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan. Who in their right mind would want to be a repressed, self-harming, sexually harassed, paranoid girl?
And yet, the physical beauty of Ms Portman's character was absolutely mesmerizing. The bone structure and symmetry of her masked face combined with her dancer's grace and elegance conveyed a disturbingly beautiful portrait that stuck in my mind long after the movie was over. In fact, the striking contrast between the outward physical beauty of the character and the pathos of her deteriorating psychological state created a dramatic irony that made this movie Oscar material. The other somewhat disturbing aspect of this movie was the dancer's repressed sexuality that burst out unexpectedly in orgasmic moments, designed to appeal to male fantasies and increase ratings and box office draw. And yet, unlike the insatiable fake sexuality of women in pornography, the ebb and flow, forbidden nature, and unpredictability of Ms Portman's sexual desire did tap into a real aspect of female sexuality.
In watching Ms Portman's performance, one word came to mind for me and it wasn't a pleasant one - anorexia. While some could argue that the movie was about psychosis and mental breakdown, for me, as a mental health professional with a focus on women's health, it was all about anorexia. Anorexia is a life-threatening mental health problem that afflicts far too many teenage girls and young women. The Black Swan character displayed many of the classic risk factors for anorexia, specifically, being a ballet dancer or gymnast, perceiving her mother as controlling, being hard-driving and perfectionistic, having low self-esteem, and judging her self-worth by external criteria. The unintended suicide at the end, is also a fitting metaphor for the anorexic woman who starves herself until her hair falls out, her periods stop, her internal organs malfunction, and, if not treated, she dies of hunger.
The Real Housewives epitomize another female media ideal in our culture - the manicured California blonde (or occasional tall, statuesque brunette). Their beauty, while probably originally due to genes, is also substantially purchased. The fake breasts on skinny bodies, hair extensions, straightening, and highlights, perfectly white and straight teeth, toned arms and torso, and botoxed or juvederrmed faces cost many thousands of dollars to maintain. And therein lies the reason for envy. As the countless makeover programs have shown us, anybody can be beautiful given enough money to purchase expert intervention. But most people have to spend their money on rent and electricity. Don't most of us wish we had the disposable income to purchase physical beauty, thereby increasing our social status and ensuring better treatment in almost all facets of life?
Despite the physical beauty of the Real Housewives, they have troubled lives. Sibling rivalry, addiction, lack of marital intimacy, unfaithful spouses, social snubs and slights, betrayal by friends, being ostracized or excluded, being publicly judged, criticized, and ridiculed - such appear to be the lives of these rich and famous women. And therein lies the formula for the show's success. If these women, who have lives that most of us can only dream of, were also nice, happy people with good relationships, this would be mentally disturbing. We would be left thinking our own lives were pathetic, miserable, and inferior. On the other hand, if we can see that these women are really unhappy underneath, despite outward appearance, that pride comes before a fall, so to speak, we can curl up in bed afterward next to our ordinary, snoring spouses thinking our own lives are pretty darn good.
What does the research say about all of this? Well, the first, and most important thing to note is that the onscreen worlds are very very fake. According to surveys, the average American woman is 5 ft 4inches and weighs about 140 lbs, whereas the average model is 5 ft 10 and weighs 118 lbs, making her thinner than 96% of American women. In fact, research shows both Miss America's and Playboy centerfolds have been getting steadily thinner since the 1970 's while the actuarial tables show the average real American woman has been getting heavier, leading to an increasingly wider gap. So, to answer my first question, "Yes, you can be too thin."
But can you be too rich? Are the worlds of rich people really as miserable as they are portrayed onscreen. The answer to this one is actually a bit more complicated. Research by Nancy Adler and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco showed that the higher your socioeconomic status (income, education, occupation), the less likely you are to die or develop a serious illness. On the other hand, mood and quality of life are more related to the quality of close relationships than to wealth. As long as you have enough money to meet basic needs, more income doesn't lead to more happiness. In fact, children in the US have a worse quality of life than children in many poorer countries, perhaps because of lack of time spent with frazzled, hard-working parents. So, maybe you can't be too rich, but on the other hand, why bother if it doesn't make you any happier.
The media simultaneously glorifies and tears down the world of the wealthy, young, urban, beautiful socialites. Advertisers want us to desire this life so we can buy more products. This, though, is not the path to happiness, and may be a dangerous road to take. We would do well to listen to the words of the ancient Ethics of the Fathers,which states: "Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion." Enjoy the fantasy of movies and television, but, unless you're at an unhealthy weight, be satisfied with the life and body that you have.
Visit Melanie Greenberg's website at: