A few weeks ago, some pictures surfaced of Miley Cyrus in which the young starlet had clearly lost weight. She wasn’t gaunt or bony, but she had inarguably slimmed down.
Rather than simply say that Miley had gotten thinner, though, magazines started running headlines screaming, “IS MILEY ANOREXIC?!”
This no doubt doesn’t seem strange. After all, we’re so used to seeing the word “anorexic” slapped across every newly slim celebrity’s photo that it doesn’t register anymore. Even when we know exactly how and why a star is dropping pounds (hi, Anne Hathaway!) we love to wonder whether what she isn’t just dieting, but actually has a legitimate psychological disorder.
Now, I’m not going to sit up here on my high horse and say that we should all turn a blind eye to the way celebrities look, mostly because that’s never going to happen. We as a people have loved celebrities ever since the first days of religious leaders and mythical gods on mountains, and we’re probably not going to change that now.
But I will say this: the way we talk about women’s weight loss in popular culture has to change. “Anorexic” has become synonymous with “thin,” and it needs to stop.
Let’s begin our journey here by taking a literal look at the two words, “thin” and “anorexia.” On one hand, we have the definition of anorexia, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health define anorexia as follows:
- Have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when she is underweight
- Refuse to keep weight at what is considered normal for her age and height (15% or more below the normal weight)
- Have a body image that is very distorted, be very focused on body weight or shape, and refuse to admit the seriousness of weight loss
- Have not had a period for three or more cycles (in women)
On the other hand, we have the definition of thin, courtesy of the Free Online Dictionary (need I point out here that the National Institutes of Health doesn’t bother to define “thin” because unlike anorexia, it is not a disease? But I’m getting ahead of myself):
- Relatively small in extent from one surface to the opposite, usually in the smallest solid dimension
So. I don’t know about you, but some discrepancies jump out at me straight out of the gate. For instance: “anorexia” seems to have a lot more to do with fear and control and obsession and other various psychological issues, whereas “thin” appears to just describe the way a person looks.
Also, “thin” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with bleeding from one’s vagina.
I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think that I could deduce from looking at someone whether or not they were afraid of some random, underlying thing. Like I might not know if you’re afraid of spiders just by looking at you. Similarly, I don’t know whether or not Miley Cyrus is afraid of gaining weight. I also don’t know when the last time she inserted a tampon was.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Despite the fact that we can clearly see whether or not celebrities have lost weight, we cannot clearly see whether or not they have anorexia. And the trouble with constantly using the words interchangeably is that it trivializes a disease that kills thousands of women and men each year – after all, the latest starlet to do a Master Cleanse or to drop 15 pounds before an awards show probably won’t continue to lose weight until her heart fails.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that part of the reason behind turning skinniness into anorexia in a tabloid headline is that it sets off a whole new string of possibilities for watching a celeb’s downfall. If she’s not just thin, but anorexic, we can gleefully watch every single morsel of food that she does or does not put in her mouth for the next three years and wonder whether or not she’s relapsing. And who doesn’t love a good psychological thriller of a storyline?
This isn’t all to say that there aren’t some celebrities out there who do have eating disorders. There are people in every line of work who have eating disorders – but we wouldn’t necessarily be able to spot them based on their weight even if we wanted to. Why? Because even if they’re Calista Flockhart, or Lara Flynn Boyle, or Miley fucking Cyrus, thin and anorexic aren’t the same thing.