Hollywood Portrayal of Thinness, Success, and Butter

Does being thin and beautiful make you happier?

Posted Aug 16, 2009

Anorexia Nervosa is a great American tragedy. It's the most deadly of psychiatric illnesses, killing almost 20% of those afflicted. Media portrayal of unhealthy thinness as the ideal of feminine beauty is one (but certainly not the only) contributing factor to this devastating illness. That's why it's so refreshing to see Hollywood offer us a glamorous, oversized, butter-eating role model.
I just saw director/writer Nora Ephron's new movie Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child. First, let me say that the movie is absolutely charming, and from an entertainment perspective, it is superb - I hope all of you will see it because it deserves to be a box office hit. However, the film has important psychological undertones that are worthy as well.

One of those undertones involves the relationship of thinness and beauty to happiness and success.

Hollywood, as well as other media outlets, has long promoted this connection. As media consumers, we are constantly bombarded by images of women, such as Kate Moss, who are impossibly thin and gorgeous living the high life and having sex with equally gorgeous men. Several studies dating back to the 1990's indicated that the "ideal" female body as portrayed by the media has become progressively (and more unrealistically) thinner with each decade since the 1950's.

Unfortunately, young women are susceptible to these portrayals, and an alarming increase in life-threatening eating disorders on college campuses, as well as in high schools, middle schools and even in elementary school-age girls, has paralleled this media trend toward unhealthy thinness. While media portrayals are certainly not the sole cause of anorexia or bulimia, they have been implicated as a contributing social factor.

Enter Julia Child (or at least Julia Child as portrayed by Meryl Streep and Nora Ephron). This portrait of the oversized and definitely-not-gorgeous Julia is so glamorous that it partially neutralizes the negative effects of all those can't-be-too-thin fashion models and movie starlets. The non-anorexic Julia lives in fabulous apartments in Paris, she meets with influential editors in New York, and she definitely has an active sex life! But more importantly, she loves life (and butter!) - and she spreads that joie de vivre to everyone she meets, from the Parisian apple vendor to the American ambassador. In one scene Julia and her equally-oversized sister (played by Jane Lynch) are admiring themselves in a mirror before a social event. Julia, upon seeing the reflection, says something like "Not bad. Not great...but not bad!" The sisters then collapse in laughter and hugs. It's clear that looking "great" is not an essential ingredient in their enjoyment of the good life!

Hurray for a positive media portrayal of a woman who is not on a diet of mineral water and rabbit food and whose beauty is not surgically-enhanced! Hurray for a role model whose inner beauty, kindness, and willingness to pursue a dream (even if that dream involved lots of butter!) are rewarded by acclaim, a long happy marriage, and lots of good times and friends.

I'm not advocating overeating as a path to happiness and success. I am suggesting, however, that a positive attitude, a love of good food and good company, and a dream that you pursue on a daily basis (all of which are Julia traits) will take you further down the path to well-being and success - and even long life (Julia lived to be almost 92) - than will starvation and the fear of fat that permeates our media.

Thank you, Julia Child, Meryl Streep, and Nora Ephron, for reminding us that butter is not the enemy!