An open letter to GAP
Someone phoned recently and asked if I‘d seen the “girl in the plaid dress” image sent out by @GAP to 432,000 Twitter followers on August 4th, along with this tweet: Dress up your days in pastel plaid. #since1969 gap.us/PlaidShirtD Today I happened across it. I wondered if, as a certified eating disorder specialist and career psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, there was a way I could not respond. I decided there wasn't.
Ever curious about societal reactions to media, as they typically reveal more about society than media itself, I did some research on how consumers have been responding to the placement. While many scolded GAP for its use of the emaciated model, even more condemned the girl. In response to those who condemned the model, there were cries that criticism of the girl was "skinny shaming." This is where I say: hold up a second.
Bear with me here. GAP chose this woman to sell plaid dresses. They felt she would be a perfect candidate for this because of one factor: she is extremely thin, and let's face it, the demographic that keeps GAP's stock afloat is one that idolizes thinness. This isn't about "skinny shaming," because in our culture, there is no shame in skinny.
A society's dominant ideology is the worldview that is created and disseminated by those with the power to influence. This voice constitutes what we are bombarded with on a day to day basis. In the US, the dominant discourse with regard to body shape is that thinness is desirable while fat is detestable. "Thin is in." Every page in fashion magazines is layered with cases of extreme thinness, interlaced with just a smattering of still below-average-weight women. Women are turned down from work in media based on their average body sizes and told they are "plus size", "too large for camera." The average American is incessantly bullied by relentless media to obtain the heavily popularized physique currently en vogue: extremely tiny waste, narrow hips, pencil-thin arms and legs, visible collarbones. The model in the plaid dress visually represents the dominant narrative, therefore to remark on the obvious and state she is emaciated is not to bully her, but to liberate the true victims- average size women- and to condemn the industry oppressors who, throughout this model’s career, have set the parameters for success as such that one must look "skeletal" (as this woman's since been called called) to be employable.
Less than 1% of Americans possess physiques naturally resembling this model, yet her image is resonates with young girls because it is in line with our dominant cultural narrative. Should GAP feature 15 average and/or plus size models in future tweets, they could not undo what's done by tweeting one example of extreme thinness. This is because women will choose the image of thinness as the beautiful one, every time- that is the image being marketed, packaged and sold as True Beauty. Studies found young black women experiencing internalized racism visually prefer a Caucasian Barbie doll over one that closely matches their skin tone. When white Americans deny the existence of "white privilege" and claim they are victim to oppression similarly to minority counterparts, they sound as preposterous as those who throw around terms like "skinny shaming." Those with power and influence cannot claim persecution effectively when they set the standards for appearance, performance and advancement. Average-and-plus-size women will identify the image of extreme thinness as beautiful, regardless of whether their body type matches this ideal, because the dominant narrative says it is so (and they know this to be certain because their body types are excluded-altogether absent- from print and news media.)
It is interesting to hear the press team at GAP allege that the use of this model was an attempt to include women of all shapes and sizes and embrace diversity. I've never seen @GAP tweet out an image of an obese woman. I don't see a tremendous amount of Latina women in the GAP catalogs, for that matter. For all that is made of obesity (unarguably, a serious health problem), anorexia is dramatically more deadly (still the number one killer of adolescents) and images like this explain why my anorexic clients report to me that their figures are "average." They are correct, sort of. While their body fat ratio is well below average by medical standards, they are "average-looking" according to a visual comparison analysis with the models in the catalog of their favorite store, while the truly average women (those with an appropriate BMI for their height, necessary for fertility, to grow, to thrive) are nowhere to be found.
PS: A shred of hope remains for the news coverage this tweet garnered. (Bravo http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2719004/GAP-sparks-outrage-tweeting-super-skeletor-ghost-model-promote-plaid-dress.html; http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/yourcommunity/2014/08/thin-gap-model-prompts-skinny-shaming-debate.html). Paying attention and interacting with media by throwing out a counter-narrative is the only means through which members of a society are able to re-claim power to influence and inform the dominant narrative. Well, that, and blogging.
PPS: When masses of informed and educated individuals assert their counter-narrative? That's a paradigm shift. And I'm holding out.
In the midst of my 5-month old’s nighttime routine (“bath- books- bottle- slowly twist and yank strands of mom’s hair out until... -bed”), I briefly tuned in to the Oscars on Sunday night, to see this image.
Taken aback, I quickly checked online to see the reaction the image was garnering from viewers. 35,000 comments were left on LIVE!’s Facebook page. A quarter of them referred to the visually frightening nature of the figure (using some variation of the sentiment “eat a cheeseburger” - not exactly sensitive, or original for that matter.) A quarter astutely expressed concern and made note of the poor example set by the “family friendly” ABC daytime host for young women. The remaining praised Kelly for her physique, referred to her as “perfect” and accused the concerned posters of jealousy. (Sigh.) Hours later, LIVE! responded with a picture of Kelly, pictured with co-host Michael Strayhan, fake-nibbling on… you guessed it. A cheeseburger. Coincidence, an attempt to make light, or ABC’s attempt at damage control?
Working with acutely ill pediatric eating disorder cases has been a privilege and an eye- opener, both as a professional in the field of mental health, and as the mother of a daughter.
Many feel the influence of the media on young women (and men) who go on to develop eating disorders is overestimated. From years of both research and practice, I could not disagree more.
I cannot count the number of 10-18 year old young women who have cited the origins of their body loathing to the onslaught of anorectic- looking celebrities within the cover of US, People, Self magazines. I have heard several young women describe Kelly Ripa’s abs when asked to explain their “ideal body” or “goal weight.” One prolific 14-year-old anorectic in residential treatment opened her big blue eyes, pointed to a woman on TV and asked me, “Why does she get to starve herself and look like that? If being underweight isn’t beautiful, how come everyone says it is?” From the mouths of babes.
Anorexia is not necessarily defined by dysfunctional eating patterns, as individuals have unique caloric requirements to maintain an appropriate body weight. There is no one-size-fits-all nutritional benchmark that makes a person “healthy” (although it is widely known that the human body has a minimum caloric requirement that must be met daily for processes to function.) I have had many eating disorder patients who consume 3,500 calories/day, but are classified as anorexic because in order to fall within 10% of their medically-stable “ideal body weight”, they must be taking in 4,500.
Rather, a BMI of less than 17.5 in adults, or 85% of expected weight, is used to diagnose anorexia. In clinical practice, I have found these numbers useful, as anorexics classically deny their insufficient caloric intake and justify their body weights as a “natural set point.” You can’t argue with the numbers. A BMI of less than 17.5 has health consequences.
Let me tell you about my work with heartbreakingly beautiful 10-year-old girls dying of the most fatal mental health disorder (more deadly than heroin addiction, alcoholism, depression) and the leading killer of adolescents (more than car accidents, suicide, alcohol poisoning.)
They come from different families, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races. They say the same things. At some point in their lives, they were confronted with an image that sparked an idea- a fantasy about a more glamorous life; one in which peers stood in awe of their discipline, will power, beauty. A thought was conceived. The eating disorder may not have taken root until years later, after a host of other psychosocial factors came together to create a perfect storm. But the image(s) – and the messages they contained about women and beauty- were not forgotten.
As a culture, we create our kids’ definition of beauty. They are conditioned by the time they are 7 or 8 to hate fat and love thin. They then socialize one another, in the classroom, at the mall, at dance class. If parents diet and reinforce the media’s messages in the home, they are more vulnerable. A leading factor in whether a kid will develop an eating disorder is a dieting or visibly weight/image-conscious parent.
This week, a new Barbie was released that more closely resembles an average woman. She’s being called “average Barbie.” I predict sales will not go well. Why? Our daughters don’t want to be average.
From Slate magazine: “In 1996, Iran officially banned the sale of Barbie dolls, citing her “destructive cultural and social consequences” on its nation’s girls. But the girls did not want to stop playing with Barbie. In 2002, the country started production on “Sara,” a state-approved Barbie alternative who was realistically proportioned, dressed in loose fitting traditional clothing, and paired with “Dara,” the Iranian version of Ken. But the girls did not want to stop playing with Barbie. In 2012, Iranian police raided toy stores to crack down on its longstanding Barbie ban, forcing shop owners to hide their Barbie boxes behind their Sara boxes to avoid detection. But the girls did not want to stop playing with Barbie. “My daughter prefers Barbies,” one mother told Reuters in 2012. “She says Sara and Dara are ugly and fat.”
Why do kids feel this way? Open a magazine. Turn on the Oscars.
Eating disorders have been shown to be communicable in many regards, as evidenced by the social effects of disordered eating spreading like wildfire through cafeteria tables and sororities. It is said that one woman with disordered eating negatively impacts the food choices of seven other women, every day. What does this mean? Refusing to maintain an appropriate BMI, for fashion, or for acceptance, is choosing to contribute to the disease rather than being a part of the cure. Your food and exercise behavior and your weight have an impact on your daughters, your nieces, and your friends.
Am I unfair for pointing to a well-known celebrity and asking that we speak openly about her example? If eating disorders were not pulling families apart by affecting 27% of girls 12-18 and 31% of female college students, then perhaps. If 46% of 10 year old girls were not dieting with an intense fear of “fatness,” then perhaps. If the mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa was not 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old, then perhaps. If I didn’t have a daughter, then perhaps.
But they do, and I do.
Can we start calling out media figures who irresponsibly impress upon a generation that is defenseless and looking for us to tell them what “pretty” means? Will your voice telling your daughter she’s beautiful be able to speak louder than a culture promoting a look that bears health consequences to maintain? How can we protect little girls when everywhere they turn, they see an injunction to be smaller, lesser? Our examples are powerful- let’s hope powerful enough. But I want more. What about you?