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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Culture of Thin

Actress Britney Murphy, who I couldn't pick out of a crowd by the way, recently died, apparently of natural causes. Now while that's certainly tragic for her family and fans, I think there is another story here, alluded to in an MSNBC article. You can link it it here.

According the "The Scoop", there is at least some speculation that the late Ms Murphy may have suffered from an eating disorder that could have contributed to her death, a-la the late (and incredibly talented) Karen Carpenter. If this is the case, then it does give you pause to think about what drives people to such extremes. Surely, there are mental health issues at work, but I think here is also a far more broad, almost cultural issue at play, namely our obsession over weight.

Ironic, isn't it? Just about the fattest nation on Earth has this obsession with physical perfection that includes as part of it's definition the notion that there is no such thing as too thin. You hear the stories all the time about models who, already at healthy weights, being told that they are "too fat". As the father of three girls I can tell one and all from first-hand experience that weight pressures, especially on young girls, are incredible these days. Making matters worse is that this "culture of thin" isn't really supported by our eating infrastructure; think about it: you go to a fast-food restaurant and they ask you if you want to "super-size" your meal. You don't need to be brilliant to see the conflict that exists today between how we define beauty and how our society's rabid desire for consumption (be it cars, clothes or cheeseburgers).

I write this as someone who has struggled his adult life with weight issues. As I've noted before, over the past ten years my weight as been as high as 262 lbs and as low as 211 lbs. Right now I'm squarely in the middle of that, thankfully on a healthy but down-ward trend. Even I though can sense the pressures and see how people succumb to an obsession over eating and being thin. As I've tried to eat less and eat better, I sometimes have to remind myself that it's okay to eat. If I, as a dopey middle-aged guy feel this way, I can't imagine what the feelings must be like for actress in Hollywood.

In the end, this just proves, once again, that Americans love a good contradiction. Whether it's our...
  • Democracy where we don't actually get to vote for President (we vote for electors that vote for President)
  • Drinking laws (you can die for your country at 18 but can't drink until you are 21)
  • Twisted notion of what's proper on TV (you can show someone getting violently shot to death at 9pm, but don't dare show a nipple)
  • Drug laws (we "approve" of the drugs alcohol and nicotine, but we disapprove of marijuana and others)
  • Down-right bizarre insistence at sports hero-worship (hell, being a football hero even got someone elected county commissioner...well until there was that little bribery thing)
  • Money as "free speech" political system (if Rush Limbaugh is right and campaign contributions are really just an expression of free speech, doesn't that mean that his speech is "free-er" than mine, as he can contribute more than I can?)
...we are awash in mixed messages. It's just a shame that sometimes these mixed-messages actually seem to cause real, personal harm.

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