By Zimmerman, Jill S.
The Humanist , Vol. 57, No. 1
She sat there in my office, her delicate face obscured by a shield of blond hair, her timid voice just above a whisper: "I want to look like the supermodels. I'm five-foot-nine, so I have the height, but I can't lose the weight. I'd like to look like Cindy Crawford. But I can't get below 140 pounds." She reminded me of a frightened rabbit as her shaky voice grew even quieter, her eyes softened with tears: "I've tried everything, but I just can't."
Time and time again, I hear this confession in the conversations I have with young women. They want to look good in a bathing suit. They want a tight butt. They go on diets and work out every day. They're never thin enough, so they go to unnatural extremes. All they really want is to feel good about themselves in a sea of doubt and turmoil encouraged by a multi-billion-dollar-a-year beauty industry. And they think the panacea is to look like a supermodel: perfectly thin, tall, sculpted, and commanding - our cultural epitome of feminine success. I have known hundreds of women who feel justified in their starving, binging and purging, and excessive exercise - their attempts to drain themselves of fat and mold their bodies into the illusions of perfection that pour into their senses from every direction. Of course, despite the money spent, the sweaty hours on the Stairmaster, the deprivation and abuse, most of these women - like most women everywhere - will never look like supermodels. This cruel reality cuts through them like a poison arrow, causing feelings of anger and shame to flood their unforgiving hearts. Initially, many of my patients don't really have lives, their ideas, feelings, and activities all revolve around calories, fat grams, and numbers on a scale.
When Cindy Crawford snapped tartly, "Do you look at pictures of me and want to puke?" to the question of whether or not models cause eating disorders, she was not only responding to a coed's provocative question at a Princeton conference. She was broadcasting the viewpoint of the majority of American beauty-industry moguls: focus on the corporate bottom line, and to hell with the health and welfare of those who create the profits. This reckless attitude was reflected by Harper's Bazaar's Tina Gaudoin, who warned in her article, "Body of Evidence," that "models like Kate Moss, Amber Valetta, Nadja Auermann ... might not [make] you feel good about yourself ... but this is an ectomorphic body type. It's in fashion. You'll be seeing more of it." I wish every women's magazine editor, advertising executive, cosmetics czar, fitness guru, fashion designer, and modeling agency CEO could have observed my session with the tearful girl who was severely bulimic in her frenzy to get down to Crawford's well-publicized 120 pounds. "Do you look at pictures of me and want to puke?" Evidently they're not hearing - or paying attention to - a deafening "Yes!" from the seven million American girls and women who, according to Dr. Vivian Meehan, president of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, suffer from eating disorders. (Add to this the number of male youths who struggle with society's image of the perfect stud and with eating disorders.)
Even if we're not afflicted with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or compulsive overeating, we are not immune to the effects of the supermodels who are used as bait to lure us into feeling physically insecure. Money speaks loud and clear and, given the huge numbers of dollars we spend each year to "beautify" ourselves with exercise and diet products, cosmetics, and fashions, the voice Madison Avenue placates is screaming, "Give me more!" The job of the beauty industry is to make money for its companies and clients, ours must be to learn how to take better care of ourselves so we don't cave in to the pressures of advertising. For beauty hype is as hard to avoid in America today as landmines were in the jungles of Vietnam 30 years ago. It's up to us to step gingerly, to gravitate toward what helps us feel beautiful physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and to leave the destructive traps by the wayside. …