I have been asked lately about the seemingly “coolness” that is associated with celebrities with eating disorders. The question typically asked is whether it is causing more girls, young women, boys and men to develop eating disorders so they can be “cool” like celebrities. I say, NO, celebrites are not responsible for causing eating disorders; perhaps, however, they do have a responsibility to the public and eating disorder sufferers.
Cool implies wanting to emulate. Rick Nauert, Ph.D. wrote in a recent article in PscyhCentral.com titled, “Modern Definition of Cool May Surprise.” “[The] concept of being “cool” emerged after the Second World War, epitomized by the likes of actor James Dean and jazz musician Miles Davis. Characteristics associated with coolness included rebelliousness, emotional control, toughness, thrill-seeking and generally doing things the way the individual desired, rather than conforming with society norms.”
Counter culture and rebellion are natural to adolescents. Smoking, alcohol and to some extent drug use are often viewed as “cool.” Experimentation with substances is not unusual during adolescence. Children who get addicted to substances are different than the kids who are experimenting with them. Eating disorders would NOT be considered disorders of experimentation. They are entrenched, daily behaviors that physical, psychological and relationally hurt the sufferer and loved ones. Any attempt to elevate them to the status of cool is unfortunate.
The University of Rochester Medical Center recently conducted a study of 1,000 participants and found that the modern day interpretation of “cool” has emerged to include, “Do I like this person? Is this person nice to people, attractive, confident and successful? That’s cool today, at least among young mainstream individuals.”
Whatever the definition of “cool” one asserts - thrill-seeking and rebelliousness or being attractive and successful there is no legitimacy in viewing eating disorders in this way.
There is no “thrill” in starving oneself or vomiting. There is self-loathing and shame.
There is no “rebelliousness” in refusing meals at dinnertime. There is rage and pain and a desperate attempt to be heard and understood by family members. Rebelliousness implies that there is a belief that there will be no negative consequences. Eating disorder sufferers do not typically deny that their behavior is self-destructive and defeating; they know there are consequences and though typically their wish is not to die, they are seeking to harm and often punish themselves.
There is nothing “attractive” in being emaciated, having chronic abdominal bloat, swollen parotid glands (chipmunk cheeks from vomiting,) dizziness and dry skin and hair.
Eating disorders may be an attempt at having “success” over something when much or all of life feels out of control or defeating. It is doubtful, however, that anyone would choose success in this way.
An eating disorder is an identity of sorts. It works more to conceal the real self and then conversely it is a representation of a self that is hidden or feels unacceptable or intolerable to the sufferer. Eliminating symptoms and discovering an authentic self are significant goals of recovery.
Perhaps what is required is an appeal to the sensibility of celebrities who come forward and the throngs of media who follow them. On the one hand, “thank you,” to them for their honesty and efforts in opening the door to understanding and educating the public about these deadly disorders. On the other, care needs to be taken in how the attention is brought and how the messages are conveyed to the public and those with eating disorders. Sensationalizing illness is never helpful. There are meaningful ways to report that will still keep ratings up and maintain appropriate attention on the issue and on those in the limelight who may have one.
One simple question to ask of anyone with celebrity status in deciding whether to come forward is, “What is truly motivating the decision to come forward?” If the goals are overwhelmingly to help, support and offer help to others, then their status has given them a unique opportunity to be of service. If motivations are generally about one’s own success, attention, thrill-seeking or being seen as counter-culture or rebellious, then understand that this can have no useful benefit to those suffering.
What motivates our behavior is complicated and driven by many forces. Serving ones own needs is not bad or wrong; it is inherent in everything we do. Perhaps at issue is the degree to which celebrities may be guided by self-serving interests and whether the satisfaction of their needs are at the inappropriate expense of others.
Remember that people with eating disorders are vulnerable to many social, cultural, media and messages. Sensitivity and awareness of this can help those in the spot light decide whether to come forward about their own issues with food, weight and body image and how then they work with the media to carry the message.