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Jan. 16 2010 - 10:55 am | 5,755 views | 2 recommendations | 13 comments

A lesson in health hypocrisy: Katharine McPhee and Shape

08ce037c4d503eafb9f3f2b735e0a8d0_defI don’t think there’s any single causative factor behind eating disorders – and neither do the experts. The National Eating Disorder Association cites a myriad of overlapping issues, from low self-esteem to troubled relationships to – yes – pop culture’s glorification of thin physiques and physical perfection.

What’s a great example of that last eating disorder trigger? Women’s pseudo-fitness magazines. You know, those mags that feature interchangeable, hard-bodied celebrity cover models, who flaunt their bikini bodies and do us a huge favor by sharing their workout tips (sometimes on collectible tearaway cards!). These magazines are like heroin for the eating disordered. They often offer misleading diet information, along with airbrushed photos of impossible physical ideals, and perpetuate ugly myths about how health ought to look. It’s obvious that these monthly doses are hurting us – but we can’t help shell out for our next fix.

You can probably tell that I think very little of these publications. That said, I don’t blame them for causing anyone’s eating disorders, including my own. I do, however, think they’re blameworthy for worsening a cultural sickness that’s already quite severe. So imagine my surprise when one magazine managed to sink to a new low this month: featuring a recovered eating disorder patient on their cover. Airbrushed and in a bikini.

Katharine McPhee, of American Idol, graces the February cover of Shape Magazine, looking exactly like every other cover model on every other issue of Shape Magazine: tight abs, protruding collar bone, disconcertingly luminescent skin. But there’s one big difference – McPhee has spoken openly before about her struggle with bulimia:

By the time she auditioned for the show [American Idol], she was purging seven times a day. Fearing she wouldn’t make it through the competition because of damage the vomiting could cause her vocal cords, she entered a three-month treatment program a few months before the season began.

Needless to say, that’s an intense struggle, and McPhee deserves credit for the strength to seek treatment and pursue life-long health. But after purging as often as seven times a day, for five years, you’d think McPhee would know better than to perpetuate the very same unrealistic physical ideal she admits to struggling with:

“Growing up in Los Angeles and spending all those years in dance class, I’d been conscious of body image at a young age.”

Exactly, Katharine. Being so conscious of your own body, and its apparent shortcomings, is very difficult. So, how do you think the millions of teens and young women eying you in a swimsuit are going to feel about their own self-worth? I’m not faulting McPhee for wanting to celebrate her health and recovery. But I am faulting her for doing it in a way that’s likely going to do more harm than good for other women. As anyone who has recovered from an eating disorder knows, the last thing – the very last thing – one should focus on is their bikini body, and, by extension, their weight or their size. Focus on strength, nourishment, how it feels to wake up energetic and vibrant. Not, as the McPhee cover teaser states, on “The Six Moves That Changed My Body!”

Full disclosure: I haven’t checked out the full text of McPhee’s “must-read” story yet. But no matter what those 1,400 words have to say about body image, my argument stays the same. Posing – in a bathing suit – on the cover of a magazine that offers tips on how to “Drop a Pound by Friday“? That makes you a hypocrite. And the antithesis of an advocate for eating disorder awareness. In her Shape interview, McPhee is quoted:

“The more I focused on my weight, the worse my bulimia got … Now I’m more easygoing. I stopped fighting myself and became more forgiving of my body.”

If women really want to become more forgiving of their bodies, comparing themselves to a bikini-clad American Idol singer is the last thing they should do. Seek out alternate forms of validation – ones that don’t represent health with headlines like “$5 tool that zaps jiggle” or “BLAST 300+ calories at lunch.”



4 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 13 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    :) Anyone who has ever had an eating disorder will ALWAYS have an eating disorder. And anyone who has ever had an eating disorder would have a hard time feeling bad about seeing themselves looking perfect in a bikini on a cover of a magazine.

    People with ED are looking for control, and having your glorious perfection grace the cover of a fitness is a sign that you’ve finally reached that level of discipline you’ve been striving for. The particulars of the self-abuse might wax & wane as the years pass, but that drive for control never fully fades.

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    My sister struggled with an eating disorder when I was young so I am more than usually aware of eating disorder issues for a guy who didn’t suffer from one.

    That being said, I see this as a deep cultural and ethical issue that goes beyond women’s body issues: McPhee is possessed of a conventionally attractive face and a physique that at least potentially (apparently) is of the type that is also conventionally attractive with enough work and or care and or photoshopping to appear on a SELF magazine cover.

    The culture in which she grew up (middle class LA show business periphery) and more generally “women’s culture” in the US middle class, is all about taking advantage of all the advantages you possibly can in the way of appearing attractive and gaining the envy/approval of other women and the sexual attention of men. McPhee probably does not have any examples of, in her experience, people who “take stands” because of some principle and sacrifice opportunities, for instance, to show off the body that you worked so hard to create. Some celebrities do take stands and forego this type of money/gratification, but not many.

    So, while McPhee was suffering or out of control, she needed help and apparently got help, which is good.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that our culture has very few role models, especially in the culture in which McPhee lives, where people give up this type of positive media attention. Also McPhee is not selling a ton of records, so she feels as though she needs to get attention any way she can.

    • collapse expand

      Michael: You make some really good points. And, though I think you’re right, the idea that someone should feel compelled to attract positive attention via attaining physical ideals makes me quite sad. I wish the same positivity was more often derived from other – actually valuable – traits and successes.

      I’m not sure what kinds of experiences men have dealing with this, but as a woman, I often find it downright impossible to say “fuck it” to the ongoing physical examination/scrutiny I feel like I’m undergoing. I recently joined an uptown gym, and the goings-on around there are, simply put, insane. I wish there was some gym dedicated to people with muscle mass and size that was proportionate to their activity level.

      But I digress. Thank you for your very insightful commentary.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Its not true that if you have an ed, you always will. People can and do recover. Part of recovery is finding a way to give up the need for control. Someone who as you stated feels “they have finally reached the level of discipline (presumably with their body) they have been striving for is likely not recovered but still sick with their ed.

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      Christina – I think the scientific jury is still out on whether someone can “fully recover” from an eating disorder, particularly if their disorder falls within the framework of mental illness, or is accompanied by other mental health issues – like clinical depression or obsessive compulsive disorder.

      I absolutely agree, though, that giving up that “need” for control – over food, exercise, body shape – is paramount. I know many women who didn’t so much “give up” the control, but transferred it to other, less physically damaging outlets. One has taken up a rigorous yoga-meditation practice, I think she finds that needed sense of discipline there.

      Personally, I’m all about the therapy. Having someone else call me out on my insane/damaging bullshit has been invaluable. I haven’t “fully” recovered – but when I do something disordered, I know that it’s problematic, and I work hard not to repeat it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I know that there is disagreement about “recovered” vs. “in recovery” I have dealt with my own Eating Disorder for a long time. At points, I would have considered myself recovered, at others in recovery and now in recovery after dealing with a significant relapse. I do believe that an Eating disorder is not at all about vanity. And only when I fully deal with my control issues will I be able to call myself completely recovered. I also agree with you that when I am in a healthier way mentally, it is not about reaching any level of discipline but rather about reaching a sense of balance with myself and that has nothing to do with appearance.
        It is just disappointing that Katherine McPhee would choose this venue. If for no other reason than the fact that magazines such as SHAPE rely so heavily on air brushing.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I feel like there are so many layers of hypocrisy in women’s health & fitness magazines. The editor in chief is always writing “love your body” letters on the front page, the middle articles are devoted to exercise and diet plans (don’t even get me started on that one that suggests 6 cherries as a snack!), and the advertisements at the back all tout sketchy diet pills and slim shakes. I realize that the goal of publishers is to make money, but can’t magazines do that without devoting ad space to dangerous “cleanses” and “quick fixes”?

  5. collapse expand

    As someone who is now in recovery from an eating disorder for 5 years and has struggled my entire life with one, I found this article to be so refreshing and spot-on. I personally believe that an eating disorder is not something you are ever completely “recovered” from. I go through periods of time where I am doing well and periods of time where the obsession is strong. I do not necessarily act out in my old destructive behaviors, but it doesn’t mean the thinking patterns do not still exist. It takes on-going therapy through support groups and tools like writing, prayer and reaching out to others in order to maintain my recovery. I find that my disease is about control yes, but there is so much more than that. My disease is characterized by an immense fear of being “fat”, as well as a strong obsession with my outer appearance and its proximity to perfection, or lack thereof.

    I completely agree with Katie on her viewpoint. It is such a shame that a celebrity who could have been a huge ally and role model for young women suffering from eating disorders has instead become a symbol of diseased behavior and thinking at its worst. What happened to being okay with her body exactly the way it was? What does it teach women – young and old – about where there value lies by posing on the cover of a magazine OBSESSED with perfecting our outsides?

    Part of my recovery has been about accepting my body EXACTLY THE WAY IT IS, regardless of the fact that my abusive disease would tell me otherwise. My recovery has been about letting go of that image of perfection that will supposedly make all my problems go away. I can tell you this much – when I was at my thinnest – which was not far from what Katharine McPhee looks like on the cover of this magazine – I was the most unhealthy and unhappy I have ever been in my entire life. I will gladly take a little extra “ab flab”, as the cover of the magazine calls it, if it means I can be happy joyous and free.

    After looking at the cover of this issue of SHAPE, my disease is saying, “See Shaune, you aren’t good enough the way you are. You need to look like this woman in order to be good. It’s obvious that you are far less than perfect.”

    And then the resounding voice of my recovery responds with “Nope. There is no such thing as perfect. You are perfect just the way you are, and don’t need to look like this airbrushed nonsense to be happy. Your worth comes from the inside, not the out.” I think I’ll listen to the latter today.


  6. collapse expand

    If blame is to be assigned for the relationship between eating disorders and the content of certain magazines, let’s talk about the editors and publishers of those magazines.

    Sure, the editors and publishers ought to care about crass circulation numbers, because higher circulation often yields more advertisers and more profit. Furthermore, editors and publishers can easily justify what outsiders might view as pandering to the thinness obsession across American society by stating, “Hey, nobody forces anybody to buy our magazines.”

    But magazine editors and publishers who trained as journalists in school–and that’s a huge percentage–almost certainly heard plenty of informed classroom talk about professional responsibility. Too often, those editors and publishers choose to forget about professional responsibility while pursuing profit.

    I have taught journalism at a highly ranked school for 32 years off and on. I know hundreds of editors and publishers who control the content of sometimes exploitative magazines. I have taught some of them in classrooms.

    A lot of those editors and publishers are highly intelligent, sensitive human beings who seem to lose their moral bearings while residing in their editorial offices. I can only hope that someday, somehow, some of them will begin to realize how much damage they can do when their magazines fall into the hands of impressionable readers.

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    About Me

    I'm a full-time heath & science writer at Sphere and a contributing editor at True/Slant. I also contribute military health news to Danger Room at Wired.com, and have recently written for Marie Claire, World Politics Review and Next American City.

    My first foray into journalism came in middle school - at a French-speaking plaid-kilt-wearing educational institute somewhere in the Canadian tundra. It was there that I decided to start my own newspaper, to disseminate my sarcasm and attitude problem among my peers. We lasted three issues.

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