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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Overshadowed by culture of perfection?

Posted by Molly Brenner Mar 3, 2011 , , ,

When Multiservice Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) brought a representative to my college campus a few weeks ago, it was news to me that the last week in February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAwareness Week). In this representative’s excellent presentation, she went over the several types of eating disorders (Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified or disordered eating), shared her own story, and explained how we can help loved ones who might be affected.

She also discussed the impact of media images in shaping diet culture, which can often (but certainly not always) lead into eating disorders. Interestingly, the Oscars aired the same week. Though the Oscars have never been the place to see a wide variety of body types, their timing was particularly interesting this year because of Black Swan’s nominations. Though the week and the film’s awards tour have passed, it’s worth reflecting on the impact they have left in their wake. Has anything changed in our perfection-seeking culture?

In the film, Natalie Portman’s prima ballerina character, Nina, restricts her eating (in one scene, she refuses the cake her mother gets her in celebration of her role as Swan Queen), and we see her vomiting in the bathroom several times. The press was abuzz with Portman’s dramatic 20-pound weight-loss for the role.

Many praised the film as a critical look at the pressure of the ballet world, considering it ends with Portman declaring, “I was perfect,” then collapsing to her death on stage. On the other hand, several critics have called the film “Eating Disorder Porn,” as it has appeared on several pro-anorexia, or “pro-ana,” websites as “inspiration.” Though these sites might seem like extreme corners of the Internet, how different is the Red Carpet that Portman walked before accepting her Academy Award for Best Actress?

As we have all seen, the Red Carpet is a place for intense scrutiny of fashion and actress’ bodies, which are put under a post-game analysis similar to what athletes undergo. Young girls might not have seen the film, which was R-rated, but they certainly might have seen the Oscars or the press coverage afterward.

Let’s not forget that only a few months ago, Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times dance critic, wrote in a review that dancer Jennifer Ringer “looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many” in her performance in New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Later, he defended his comment by saying, “If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career.” In actuality, if you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, try not being human, especially not a woman. Despite the immense Internet backlash to Macaulay’s words, his were the ones published in the Times, where he is still employed.

So, did NEDAwareness Week and Black Swan have similar messages, calling progressive attention to the realities that Macaulay represents? Or can we wrap Black Swan, the Red Carpet, and Macaulay all up together as rather depressing symbols overshadowing the message of NEDAwareness Week?

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