Keira Knightley's arms are rewiring my brain. This is unfortunate since Keira knows exactly zilch about neurology but forgivable since she's a victim of rewiring herself. Why else do you think she keeps herself so painfully thin?
Allow me to explain: A new study published in the journal The Biologist last week found the sight of superskinny celebs doesn't just make women feel bad - it actually changes the way we think. Now I've never been much for bemoaning the current fashion for ultra-lean models and actresses - there's Hollywood and then there's reality, never the twain shall meet. Any idiot who can't tell the difference needs a good hard shake, right?
Wrong. According to Aric Sigman, who conducted the exhaustive international study, otherwise intelligent women may not be able to prevent their brains from being flooded with negative feelings when repeatedly shown images of Blake Lively's thighs or Nicole Kidman's sternum. Sigman travelled to remote parts of the world, including Indonesia's West Papua, Bhutan and Burkina Faso, where electronic media has only recently extended its reach, and interviewed women and local doctors about what happened when images of LiLo's tortured hipbones staggered into town. Even in cultures where fuller figures were revered, women faced with Western tabloid images immediately began declaring they hated their own bodies and going on diets. According to Sigman, the study reveals an "adaptive evolutionary mechanism" in women, which causes us to relentlessly compare ourselves with each other in the hope of bagging the best mate.
On the other hand, it could be we're just universally socialized to believe being pretty and finding a rich husband is the only path to earthly happiness. Either way, it sucks. If you want proof of what a long way we haven't come, just check out an episode of The Bachelor.
Which leads me to Jennifer Pozner, journalist and director of the U.S.-based feminist advocacy group Women in Media & News, and her new book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV.
In a phone interview from New York this week Pozner and I bonded over our collective loathing of Tyra Banks (whom she refers to as "an example of fashion and beauty advertiser Stockholm syndrome," i.e., a woman held hostage by the fashion industry until she sympathizes and perpetrates - though I have another, less charitable name for the America's Next Top Model host) and speculated on the reason why there is often a Bachelor show but rarely one with a Bachelorette (one theory she floats is that Mike Fleiss, the show's executive producer, doesn't like portraying women in positions of power).
Pozner's book, out this month, looks at the truth behind reality TV and concludes (not all that surprisingly) that it is basically the root of all cultural evil.
One of her many concerns is the alarming way female celebrities have begun to shrink over the past decade and a half - from slim to scary-skinny, noting: "The phenomenon has become so noticeable that actresses whose lovely round heads perch atop stick bodies are now called symbols of the 'lollipop syndrome.' " While there is no scientific evidence available to prove that celebrities are shrinking, anecdotal observation bears this out (just check out the strong healthy bodies on the eighties hit Flashdance in comparison to today's emaciated beauty ideal). And the cultural consequences are more than evident. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, the prevalence of eating disorders in Canada has been steadily on the rise since the 1980s. According to a 2008 survey, 37 per cent of girls in Grade 9 and 40 per cent in grade 10 perceived themselves as too fat - even if they were within a healthy weight range.
Pozner pins the blame on a surprising culprit: The U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996. "The act heralded a wave of media consolidation," she explained, "which led to huge mergers and a change in the culture of media where profit became the single most important thing. Basically, after '96, the quality of content became almost entirely irrelevant to people who make programming decisions. And bottom-feeder tabloid journalism also became popular because it attracts viewers and it's cheap."
Shows such as Access Hollywood and eTalk suddenly began to dominate the ratings and the era of US Weekly and In Touch "baby bumps" and "cellulite watch" was born.
Pozner likens the big red arrows point out FAT!! to shaming techniques used by the Puritans. "When media brand stars with this new Scarlet F, they intend it as the worst sort of pejorative. Suddenly an actress who happened to eat a bagel that day is guilty of a moral failing for which she should be publicly flogged."So female celebrities responded by shrinking themselves to microscopic proportions in order to avoid the red arrows and we, in turn, watched them do so and subsequently had our brains rewired.
In a recent biography of Karen Carpenter, the world's most famous celebrity anorexic, what were once shocking photographs of Carpenter wasting now look almost normal by celebrity standards. Her death, almost three decades ago, raised awareness of eating disorders the world over. But have we come a long way, baby? The answer, I'm sorry to say, is absolutely not.