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Skinny On Screen

Monday, 24 March, 2014

Illustration by Sarah Haris

The concern surrounding the media’s idolisation of thinness is by no means unwarranted. The supposed desirability of  “bikini bridges” and “box gaps” mean that young people—teenage girls in particular—are willing to going to extreme lengths to embody these trends. But the backlash surrounding willowy limbs and flat stomachs also risks making thinness a freakish trait. Amid the fierce criticism of these unrealistic depictions of beauty, those who do possess thin bodies become offensive in their physicality, or are labelled as unhealthy. In this frame of mind, thin people become fair game for anonymous, public criticism. Female celebrities in particular bear the brunt of these criticisms, some even being put to blame for the obsession parts of our society have with extreme thinness.

One much-criticised female body is that of fashion “it girl” Alexa Chung. Chung is frequently idolised by sites that glorify extreme thinness and offer tips on how to become better at self-starvation. Yet while Chung is an icon for these internet communities, she also constantly receives online vitriol for her appearance. One Instagram commenter tells her she “looks like a skeleton”, and “should seek help”, while a few comments down a young girl states she strives to have Chung’s life and body. Chung has publicly stated numerous times that her high-stress lifestyle is the reason behind her thinness, and that at times she becomes worried by the state of her own body. She does not dole out diet tips, yet is still regarded by some as a villain, as if she is using her body to put body-conscious fans at great risk of developing a fixation with thinness.

The bodies of men in Hollywood do not receive the same treatment as those of women. This is exemplified by the actor Matthew McConaughey’s recent physical transformation. During the filming of Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey underwent an alleged 20kg weight loss. The previously muscular and bronzed McConaughey transformed into a very gaunt and pale cowboy figure. He gave interviews about having to subsist on tiny amounts of food each day, and even stated that he began to lose his eyesight as his weight plummeted.

If we were to alter this situation, placing a female actor in McConaughey’s position, things would be very different. Criticism would be rife, and speculative headlines would adorn newsstands everywhere. McConaughey becomes a ‘serious actor’ because of his weight loss—Oscar material, willing to go above and beyond for his art. But a female in his position would become ‘scary skinny’, a recklessly negative role model and a danger to her own wellbeing. Alexa Chung’s thinness is on par with McConaughey’s at the time of his weight loss, yet she is treated like an ill person, or as a body-image bomb about to explode in the vulnerable minds of teenage girls. No one speculates that a male actor might be mentally ill when he changes his body for a role, yet questions arise for the young and female Chung. She has to justify her body to the masses while McConaughey receives veneration for his.

A comparison between the way Chung and McConaughey’s bodies have been received and critiqued by the media reflects a double standard present in the entertainment industry. It suggests that women’s bodies are inherently dangerous while men’s are their own business. Eating disorders are not exclusively a female issue—eating disorder diagnoses, poor body image and exercise addiction in males is on the rise. So why is it that these men, who have the same protruding collarbones and knobbly knees as women like Chung, do not come under media speculation?

This stigmatisation of female thinness is damaging. Nobody asks for their body to harm the self-esteem of others. We have to be careful that the opposing commentary of thin women’s bodies in the media does not persist in rendering thinness freakish. Male thinness too falls into this category. McConaughey’s transformed body, while  representative of his serious acting skills, is still seen as something to gawk at. The number of interviews that have delved into his weight loss regime make this apparent. Thin bodies are both ideal and grotesque, an inspiration and a health risk, all at the same time, often depending on the wording of tabloid headlines. Whether we are thin or fat, male or female, our bodies are our own, and it is not fair for any individual or group to make another’s physicality a discussion point, or blame one body for the mental health issues of others.