The days of size-0 stars talking about how little they can eat to stay in the business seem to be fading into darkness. Now, it’s Jennifer Lawrence talking pizza and French fries, Mindy Kaling saying she eats like a 6-foot-3 man and Gabourey Sibide throwing shade at cruel Twitter trolls commenting on her weight.
The floodgates of real-body talk have been opened. But it’s not just on social media or alongside Jimmy Fallon. Women like Kaling are scripting their own TV shows, making body image discussion part of the plotlines. It’s become more acceptable to discuss body realism as opposed to idealism, but is all this talk about bodies helping women with self-image issues or eating disorders or does this new focus fuel our obsession with how we look? If anything the conversation is even more focused on appearances than before.
Kaling's show The Mindy Project, which she stars in and writes, never fails to tease her insecurities or her so-called atypical size. At times the jokes are actually hilarious and very relatable, like a fan favorite that's often quoted: "I'm not overweight, I fluctuate between chubby and curvy." But others, while funny, seem unnecessary. On a recent episode, when her character excused herself from work for an appointment, a colleague asked if she was getting lap-band surgery. Later in the episode, when she sat on a man’s lap, the chair crumbled beneath them.
And the conversation continues on social media where Kaling has become known for her frank comments about weight. When she posted a fan’s illustration of herself on Instagram using the hashtag #thickthighs, troves of followers applauded what they thought was hilarious and honest. “It takes a lot of effort to look like a normal-slash-chubby woman!” Kaling told Jimmy Kimmel when explaining the backhanded compliments she receives from fans about her shape.
In a recent Vogue feature, Kaling is referred to as a ‘curvaceous comedienne,’ essentially a fancy term for ‘she’s not skinny.’ The story describes her as a ‘fluctuating size 10’ and highlights the ways she dresses for her shape, which focus mostly on looking as small as possible with a few of her thoughts about fashion sprinkled in. The article quotes Kaling about taking chances with her outfits: “I don’t want my tombstone to say, she hid her imperfections on the red carpet.” Soon after the issue's release, she was hailed for wearing a crop top to the 2014 Paley Fest. People praised her on the web, but it's going too far to call someone courageous for that. And Kaling agreed, telling Kimmel she didn't think it garnered acclaim. Still, it's wonderful that Vogue chose to feature a woman outside its normal scope of Karlie Kloss-types, but the story could have been more about Kaling herself than about her body.
Joking about the ridiculous standards set by pop culture and celebrities can make women feel better about their bodies, about being ‘normal/chubby’, but it also reinforces the comparison factor that some experts say drives body image issues and an increase in eating disorders among women and men. “The key is an acceptance strategy,” says Dr. Kenneth Weiner, CEO and Founder of the Eating Recovery Center. “We see the prevalence of eating disorders continue to rise in the face of an environment that has a need for women to experience dissatisfaction with their body.” Eating disorder prevalence is hard to track, since there's no standardized method and so many cases go unreported. Still, Dr. Russell Marx, chief science officer of the National Eating Disorder Association, says they appear to be on the rise in adolescents--with young people suffering from eating disorders at an earlier age than previous generations.
Kaling's so-called imperfections are also the things that make her so-called normal, so her commentary about them creates a disconnect between the idea of accepting yourself as is and seeing yourself as normal, versus constantly calling out your supposed flaws.
Other experts say that the appearance of more diversity in the body shapes of the people on television is a positive development. “In the same way that we don’t know what contributes to disordered thoughts about body image, we don’t know what confers a healthier message,” says Dr. Evelyn Attia, the director at Columbia Center for Eating Disorders. “But it’s nice to have a period of time where people are trying on these messages, where celebs are getting the word out that there are lots of healthy bodies, lots of healthy definitions of beauty,” Attia says. “It’s a bit of a refreshing chapter."
Attia suggests that the best option is for women to get to "a place of neutrality" when it comes to body image, which means neither extreme satisfaction or dissatisfaction with one’s body but a form of acceptance that size and shape isn’t the end all be all of success and happiness. It's hard to know whether discussing crop tops and imperfections help women reach a point of neutrality. And it's worth noting that there are also celebrities who don’t fit the unattainable size-0 standard and choose not to dwell on it all. Take Christina Hendricks, who’s almost always referred to in conjunction with the word voluptuous or curvy. The Mad Men star refuses to discuss her body or body image, which is perhaps closer to the neutrality that Attia recommends.
The fashion industry and some media outlets have been trying to shift the conversation and encourage better body image, but whether it makes a difference is hard to know. In 2012, Seventeen launched a ‘Body Peace Treaty’ campaign, designed to encourage young women to make peace with their bodies, but there’s little evidence it’s made a true impact. And though Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign sheds light on how women define themselves, it only fuels the discussion of unattainable standards. None of these efforts have limited the number of bikini body gossip magazines on stands. In 2005, a campaign spearheaded by researcher Carolyn Becker and a sorority sought out to ban ‘fat talk’ to help prevent eating disorders and negative body image. While commendable, of course, the campaign never really took off the ground.
Though laughter is often good medicine, Weiner suggests that being disparaging and demeaning about your size and weight is far from the ticket to acceptance. “Poking fun at yourself because you’re larger? If anything, I see that as part of the problem.”