[In Brief] How to Talk About Mental Illness Recovery Without Shaming

Lucy Hale covers this month’s Cosmo.

Remember that post about celebrity gossip I just wrote? Well, here’s an example of how reading that stuff can be useful and enlightening.

I’m reading an interview in the September issue of Cosmo with Lucy Hale, a 23-year-old actress most known for her role on Pretty Little Liars, a guilty pleasure of mine. In the interview, Hale opens up (apparently for the first time) about the eating disorder she struggled with as a teenager:

But behind the scenes, Lucy developed a dangerous habit all too common among young starlets. ‘I’ve never really talked about this, but I would go days without eating. Or maybe I’d have some fruit and then go to the gym for three hours. I knew I had a problem,’ Lucy says of the issue that plagued her for two years. Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around. ‘It was a gradual process, but I changed myself,’ she says.

Except for the following paragraph, in which Hale talks about cutting damaging friendships out of her life, no other details are given about how she recovered from her eating disorder, and I won’t assume. However she did it, it’s awesome and she deserves to feel great about having accomplished that.

However, the Cosmo writer takes it a bit further with this sentence: “Luckily, unlike some actresses who have been unable to escape the downward slide, Lucy had the strength to turn herself around.”

Wait…what? So people who succumb to the “downward slide” of eating disorders, or who need professional help to recover, just lack the “strength” that Hale has?

Obviously, I disagree.

If Hale really did recover without any professional help–which, again, she does not make that clear–there are many potential reasons for that. Perhaps she had a great support system of friends and family. Maybe she’s not genetically predisposed to eating disorders. Maybe her parents have healthy eating habits that they were able to model for her. She might’ve not had as serious a case as others do. Or perhaps she just got lucky.

None of this means that actresses who are “unable to escape the downward slide” have any less “strength” than Hale did. It means, probably, that they had different circumstances. Different lives.

So, how does one talk about people who have recovered from mental illness on their own without putting down those who cannot? My answer would be, by not comparing them to each other. Hale recovered? That’s awesome. Another actress didn’t? That’s a tragedy, and she deserves help and support. Their illnesses are not comparable, even if they happen to share the same name.

As Leo Tolstoy said, unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. Similarly, people who suffer from mental illness all do so in their own way. Just because one recovers and another does not doesn’t mean that one has more “strength” than the other.

P.S. Before anybody goes all “but it’s just Cosmo, who cares!”, Cosmo has a circulation of over 3 million in the United States and is also distributed in over 100 other countries in 32 languages. Readers of this blog probably think Cosmo is silly and not something to be taken seriously (which it’s not), but the truth is that many people around the world probably get most of their information about things like mental illness from media like this. So it’s definitely worth examining and critiquing.

Surprise! Elle Magazine Editor Doesn't Really Care About Eating Disorders

Nope, no Photoshopping. Nothing to see here, move along now.

Confession: sometimes I read women’s magazines. They’re fun to make critique and laugh at.

This time, though, I didn’t even get past the magazine’s front matter before finding something objectionable. In her opening letter for Elle magazine’s August issue, Editor-in-Chief Roberta Myers discusses the recent legislation in the U.K. that would require digitally altered photographs of models to be labeled as such. You can practically feel the derision and dismissal dripping off the page:

So now the National Academy of Sciences is getting into the act, trying to define what ‘impossibly beautiful’ means. In response to legislation pending in the UK to require digitally altered photos to be labeled out of concern for public health, as well as the American Medical Association’s campaign against changing pictures ‘in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,’ two Dartmouth computer scientists proposed a ‘metric’ at a recent NAS meeting designed to rate how much retouched photos have ‘strayed from reality.’ The authors noted that ‘highly idealized’ images have been associated with eating disorders, such as anorexia.

Scare quotes aside, I have the feeling that Myers knows exactly what “impossibly beautiful” means, even if the idea of defining it operationally seems a bit silly. I do think that regulatory measures like these should be approached with a certain degree of healthy skepticism, because government regulation should not be undertaken lightly and without good evidence. But Myers isn’t critiquing it skeptically. She’s sticking her head in the sand and denying that a problem exists.

Furthermore, the regulations don’t even propose to ban severely Photoshopped images, but merely to place labels on them. Is putting an extra little bit of text on the bottom of an image really such a burden for Myers? I think not. Note that some countries are going even further–Israel, for instance, banned the use of underweight models in advertising entirely.

Myers continues:

Yet according to David Scott Rosen, MD…eating disorders are as old as the Bible. They cropped up in popular literature 200 years ago–long before Photoshop but right around the time when John Singer Sargent painted his famous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), a most flattering oil-on-canvas portrait that left out many a “flaw.”

I couldn’t find a citation for this, but it’s probably true. However, nobody’s claiming that eating disorders exist solely because of unrealistic beauty standards in the media. It’s not like a perfectly healthy young woman (or man, but that’s a slightly different conversation) opens up Elle magazine, sees a picture of a thin model, and immediately starts starving herself. Eating disorders arise from a complicated interaction of genetics, family life, and the surrounding culture. They involve complex cognitive processes, such as the ones described in this study. As another example, research shows that people determine attractiveness based on what they have seen the most. So if you’ve been looking at images of impossibly thin women for your entire life, that may be what you’re going to find attractive–and that’s what you may aspire to be.

We can’t prevent genes that predispose one to eating disorders from being passed down, and we can’t make it illegal for parents to teach their daughters that their appearance is the most important thing and that one should use unhealthy means to maintain it (though, with more education, we might be able to prevent that). We can, however, place restrictions on the images that permeate our media.

Furthermore, Myers conveniently ignores the fact that eating disorders have been growing more and more prevalent over the past century, especially among young women. Studies have also shown possible links between media that promotes thinness and eating disorders. It is impossible to establish a causative link with certainty, but that’s because 1) nothing is ever certain in science, and 2) we live within a culture that promotes and glorifies thinness. You can’t really evaluate phenomena like this accurately when you exist within the system that you’re trying to evaluate.

But luckily, studies done with non-Western cultures are very revealing. One extremely compelling study showed that girls in Fiji, who previously had little exposure to Western media, became much more likely to show signs of disordered eating after watching Western television shows for the first time.

Several Google searches brought up countless studies like these. Myers seems to consider them irrelevant here. She continues:

My point is that trying to define “impossible beauty,” and then regulate its dissemination by putting warning labels on retouched images, seems rather preposterous. You know, my chocolate bar never looks quite as creamy as it does in the ads; cars are never quite that sexy and sleek; and the milk in my cereal bowl never looks quite that white. Oh, wait! It’s not milk at all! It’s some gelatinous concoction meant to look like milk while it stays sturdy under hours of hot lights. Shall we label those photos, too?

This passage is as laughable as it is offensive. First of all, cool slippery slope fallacy, bro. Second, while one may argue over the sleekness of a car or the whiteness of a bowl of milk, it is completely unmistakable when magazines alter photos of models such that they appear to thin to actually be alive.

Third, and most importantly, the comparisons Myers makes are flippant to the point of inanity. The worst thing that can happen in her examples is that one’s chocolate bar isn’t creamy enough. The worst thing that can happen when magazines use Photoshop to excess is that, you know, someone develops anorexia and dies.

As I mentioned, the link between digitally altered images and eating disorders probably isn’t simple. But research is increasingly showing that it is there. It is worth noting that Myers never makes any comments about her own magazine’s use of Photoshop, which tells me that she’s fully aware of what she’s doing and is just willfully playing dumb. She knows. And she’s threatened by it, because things are starting to change.

But she’s not done. She goes on to cite an article in this month’s issue:

I wonder what the National Academy would have to say about the photograph we ran in this issue of novelist and essayist Ann Bauer, who writes so eloquently about growing up “ugly”–bearing a steady stream of abuse about her looks from classmates, strangers, and even lovers.

This bit confirms for me what I already suspected–that magazines like Elle print articles like this solely from the purpose of distracting people from the role they play in upholding our society’s beauty standards. These magazines can trot these articles out as examples of their commitment to portraying “women of all shapes and sizes,” when, in fact, they use these women as tokens.

The article in question is indeed a beautiful article. But what’s ironic is that Myers doesn’t even realize how magazines like her own have contributed to the bullying and abuse that women like Bauer face. Of course, people have always valued beauty and mistreated those who are deemed “ugly.” But lately, the box into which women must fit in order to be considered beautiful has been shrinking, whereas the “ugly” box has been growing. Magazines like Elle may not be the only (or even the main) causes of this trend, but it would be naive not to implicate them in it.

Furthermore, that photo of Bauer that Myers is so proud to have featured? It takes up one corner of a page and measures about two by three inches. Compare this to the dozens of full-page Photoshopped models in the magazine.

The most telling (and touching) part of Bauer’s piece, to me, is the end, in which she describes visiting Hungary with her husband and going to the opera in Budapest:

I turned and found myself looking into a full-length mirror. And I saw something I’d never seen before: myself, in a sea of women who looked just like me.

[...]Everywhere I looked in that lighted glass, there were women with large features, deep-set eyes, rounded cheeks, riotous hair, and delicate-yet-meaty little bodies. We were, in other words, an army of ugly people.

Only, for the first time in my memory, we weren’t. I wasn’t. I was normal, even conventionally attractive. Stylish. Interesting. Sexy. Simply that.

I stood in front of that mirror in the Hungarian State Opera House, watching couples mill. Men holding the arms and hands of dozens of women who could’ve been my sisters, mother, and daughters, tipping their heads back, kissing them lightly, gazing with naked admiration at faces like mine.

Bauer shows, ultimately, that she is not ugly. It is American culture that makes her out to be so. In Hungary, women who look like her are not bullied. They are not sent anonymous emails about how ugly they are. They are not denied jobs or pressured to lose weight and get plastic surgery.

This makes Myers’ stubborn refusal to examine the potential effects of her magazine even more ironic (and upsetting). Magazine editors seem to feel that they are being solely blamed for the devastating experiences of many women (and, increasingly, men), but no informed researcher or critic would say that magazines directly cause eating disorders. We have to examine this phenomenon as a system of interacting elements–the mass media, politics, families, and individual brains and bodies–in order to begin to understand how to prevent unhealthy beauty standards, poor body image, and eating disorders.

We can’t start without making sure that everyone knows that the images they see around them every day of their lives are not realistic. They’re not something to aspire to, because they cannot be obtained–except perhaps at a very high cost.

The editorial this photo belongs to is totally unironically called “The Surreal World.” Photo credit: Elle August 2012

Mental Illness as a Spectator Sport

Step right up, ladies and gents, see the amazing inhuman hoarders here!

Our culture seems to have three ways of relating to people with mental illnesses–either they’re pathetic losers who need to “snap out of it”, or they’re crazies who need to be locked away (think schizophrenia in popular culture), or they’re here for our pleasure and entertainment. That last one is a relative newcomer, and that’s the one I want to write about here.

Just look at our celebrities–specifically, the ones with substance abuse problems. When it comes to them, it’s all fun and games till someone dies. While the late Amy Winehouse was still alive, blogs and magazines loved to publish photos of her visibly drunk, putting her up for public ridicule. Sure, everyone knew she could use some rehab–she sang about it herself–but there was never an ounce of compassion in how we, as a society, related to her.

And take Charlie Sheen, clearly a troubled individual. I don’t even remember how many days went by that articles making fun of him littered my Google Reader feed. With him, there isn’t even any ambiguity regarding the diagnosis, but he was still treated like a circus animal, and everyone sat back in their seats, made some popcorn, and watched.

Take TV shows like A&E’s Hoarders, Intervention, and Obsessed. These shows literally turn mental illness–and the treatment thereof–into entertainment. You can laugh as the poor OCD sufferer cries when forced to touch a gas pump nozzle with her bare hands, or gag as that creepy hoarder guy reveals his apartment full of old snack wrappers and rotting food.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to inform people about the lives of those with mental disorders. What I’m saying is that this informing should be done in a compassionate, humanizing way, and reality TV isn’t always the best format for that. For instance, the show In Treatment, which describes a (fictional) therapist and his clients, is a far cry from the carnival sideshow-like feel of the reality shows. I’m not exactly a big fan of reality TV in general, but as a medium for educating the public about mental illness, it’s even worse than usual, because it creates an environment in which people view their fellow human beings as freaks to be gawked at, not as peers to be sympathized with. (A counselor quoted on Everyday Health calls it “exploitanment.”) This happens on virtually every reality show–think how much the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol get made fun of. The difference is that the people on Jersey Shore and American Idol (arguably) do not have a serious mental illness.

Ultimately, all media companies want to provide stuff that sells, and in the case of magazines that publish photos of drunken celebrities (with witty commentary, of course) and TV networks that produce shows putting people with mental disorders up for display, the money’s definitely talking–people love it. But the quality of mental healthcare in the U.S. will never improve while our culture continues to treat people with mental disorders as amusing distractions and not as people.