Celebrity Culture and the Price of Perfection

Living in a big city has its perks. In addition to 24-hour public transportation and a choice of world-wide cuisine, one is more likely to encounter celebrities, socialites and the ultra-rich in a metropolis. Bumping into a famous person whose face and life story you are familiar with is surreal. To them, you remain anonymous.

Statuette of a Female, Iran 1st millennium BCE
Upon seeing a celebrity, a million thoughts may run through your head: they are so much better/worse looking than on television; who is that with them; ooh! maybe they will notice me; what is he/she wearing; look how skinny she is. It is this last thought (look how skinny) that stuck with me after a recent encounter with the rich and famous, and the subject (skinny) that I am addressing in this post.

Like little ducklings, we innately mimic our parent-figures. However, when parents are absent or distracted, young impressionable people gravitate towards other role models who may not have their best interests in mind. This can take the form of a dominant girlfriend or boyfriend, a bossy sibling, a gang, an alpha-female or male best friend. Young people may also look for guidance from celebrities and other media personalities.

We place celebrities, models, internet personalities, politicians, socialites and royalty upon superficial pedestals, representing what we think we should have. On the surface, they have it all: money, fame, good looks, sex, power. It is amazing the effect celebrities have on the public. The Princess of Wales buys an outfit and the dress is sold out in stores the next day. We spend hours online scrutinizing a celebrity's cellulite while munching on doughnuts and fast food at home. In this light, celebrity culture is both a fill-in for our parental units and a means of distracting ourselves from our own lives.

Venus and Adonis by Peter Paul Rubens (1630's)
Unfortunately, many popular figures are unaware of their sway upon the public, particularly its youngest members. A celebrity or politician's decision to remain in a public heterosexual relationship while privately pursuing people of their own gender is false and misleading. What type of example does this set for teens and preteens who struggle to come out of the closet every day? Children are killing themselves out of shame but a million-dollar movie hunk has to maintain a "straight persona" at the risk of losing his fan base? Although I am not (yet) a popular figure, I deeply believe that with fame comes responsibility. I wait for the day when movie stars, sports figures, politicians and internet stars come clean and celebrate who they are. This would set a wonderful precedent for our youth and society as a whole.

Current society also values slenderness to the point of sickness. This was not always the case. The first civilizations around the third millennium BCE worshiped fertility goddesses with steatopygia. Seventeenth century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens celebrated voluptuous (rubenseque) women in his masterpieces. With the more recent availability of food for the masses, fleshiness is no longer associated with health and prosperity. In fact, the opposite is true. This, coupled with a wide-spread illusion amongst both sexes that to attain power, one must act cut-throat and masculine, has created a culture of women who act and look like men. Instead of embracing femininity, curves, motherliness and communal living, many powerful women are women in name only. The entire natural order has been flipped, to our own detriment.

I wonder if it is this desire for power and perfection that has led so many popular figures to starve themselves to mimic the body type of a ten-year old boy. Again, this sets a dangerous example for young women and men who look to these celebrity figures for guidance. I remember as a child feeling bad about my body because it was bigger than the models in Seventeen Magazine and the actresses on screen. Looking back, I see nothing wrong with the body I had then, but my young mind was set on being skinny because I believed it was the only way that people would like me. When I finally succeeded in losing the weight, I received praise. Unfortunately, this behavior spiraled out of control and I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of thirteen.  

Certainly, other factors contributed to my disorder. But the unrealistic female (and male) body image as portrayed in mass-media played a decisive role in affecting my developing persona. I am always excited to see a celebrity or public figure in person, but when I notice that their arm is the thickness of my friend's two year old son, I can't help but get upset. My mind flashes back to those years of self-torture, to friends who secretly threw up in bathrooms or took laxatives to remain bean-pole skinny. It has been over seventeen years since the diagnosis, but seeing these walking skeletons, happily talking and sipping champagne at cocktail parties makes me cry. Perhaps an eating disorder, a self-destructive addiction akin to alcoholism, lingers in the consciousness, never quite disappearing.


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