Words by Ellen Cregan
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.
Words by Ellen Cregan
Illustration by Kitty Chrystal
Her back faces the ceiling, unarmoured yet somehow impenetrable. The bones in her spine stand distinct from the rest of her, as if to say, “We’re here, and far tougher than we look.” She sleeps cheek to pillow, hips to protruding bedsprings. Watching her I can feel the swollen springs against my own skin. It doesn’t bother her much, she says—she’d rather feel the suggestion of those metal coils than the empty air against her goose-pimpled night time skin.
Taking her elbow to the hollow beneath her ribcage, she pushes it in to settle herself, a reminder that her body is still soft and vulnerable. She presses on her gut, feeling comfort in its compression. Her flesh becomes one with the bed sheets, and once she has closed her eyes nothing can come between them.
A few times during the night she’ll release her arm from beneath her torso and grasp at the air. Quickly and repetitively she forces blood through her veins and into her fingers, but it always retreats soon after. She never rolls over in her sleep—she once told me her stomach is something she cannot bear to bare.
Childhood forbade me to sleep with my toes dangling over the edge of the bed. Eventually, the feet-eating creatures that lurked below stopped me from sleeping at all. Her monsters are organ eaters. They can tear her body from belly button to collarbone, devouring her pink, limp innards. So she hides with her face in the pillow.
Outside a car alarm goes off, but I hardly notice. Her resting breath is louder to me than any other noise. She murmurs, but I can’t make out what she says, her words muffled by unconsciousness and goose-down. She resumes her rest.
Finally my eyelids begin to sink, begin to heal the red rawness that has plagued them these past few days. I wonder what her words meant, or if they meant anything at all. But it’s not time for these thoughts now.
I’ll have to ask her about them in the morning.
Words by Ellen Cregan
Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man is a fascinating and at times melancholic collection of short fiction. The stories are fragments, drawn together by the presence of the protagonist who is also named Luke. Set predominately in Luke’s hometown—the Western Sydney suburb of Liverpool (again, the author and his protagonist have this in common)—they communicate and reflect on a multicultural Australian adolescence. In his introduction to the collection, Carman writes that Sydney’s western suburbs have been largely absent from the face of Australian fiction, and it’s clear that he has aimed to represent Liverpool as faithfully as possible. His writing often focuses on the ugliness of working class suburbia and the pain of being an outsider, yet manages to achieve a balance. Carman seeks to show this corner of Australia with authenticity, warts and all.
Luke is an outsider in many ways. He pursues a career as a writer, becomes fixated with pop culture and literary figures, and is portrayed as incredibly awkward and eccentric at times. But there are many other misfits here too: cultural outsiders, addicts, poetry reciting hipsters and grown women able to see ghosts, among many others. Common to all these stories is a search for belonging and meaning. While the search for these ideals remains present throughout, they often prove hard to find, or turn out to be far from ideal.
At times it seems these stories are more than just fiction; that the characters and their lives are rooted in reality. Their stories are familiar. In ‘217o’ a young woman is drawn into a life of addiction via an abusive relationship. In ‘West Suburbia Boys’, adolescent dreams of fame fade into an adulthood of blue collar work. Carman recalls these tales from a far away vantage point, at once involved but unable to interfere. He is, like his protagonist, often a passive force, constantly in the midst of the action but solely as an observer who cannot save anybody.
Carman’s style is accessible and not overly complicated, but it does become surreal at times. His stories are almost effortless in their execution, shifting from the voice of a child figuring out his father to that of a grown man preaching Kerouac’s inadequacies on the train. They capture a sense of suburbia, and the everyday losses we face as we grow up. There is a sense of paralysis to these stories. While the protagonist Luke moves away, Liverpool remains a centre of familiar faces and childhood friends. It is as if Luke and Liverpool are intertwined—he will always be a ‘west suburbia boy’.
The way that each story joins together is subtle. The end result is a sense of wholeness, rather than a rigid timeline. This wholeness makes the collection, causing each fragment of Luke’s life seem all the more realistic and familiar. No one in these stories goes on to greatness; each is quietly lost to monotony. Many of the situations Carman presents his reader with are familiar, and the sadness that encapsulates many of these stories is made all the more recognisable for this reason. Overall, this makes for an engaging read, and a text that seems to live beyond its final page.