Dying to be thin

A friend of mine committed suicide earlier this month. That’s one way of describing what happened.

Another way of describing the event would be to say she died from anorexia nervosa.

Yet another description would be to say she was killed by a culture that, from the time she was a little girl, tormented her constantly about her body.

Here’s an e-mail a 14-year-old girl sent recently to Monique van den Berg, an English professor whose blog is dedicated to, among other things, encouraging people to stop hating their bodies:

“It’s really hard not to judge yourself when the image of beauty is a size 0. I know I’m talented, but that doesn’t make the girl in the mirror look any better. And every time my mom tells me I look pretty I just can’t believe her! Is this just a ’14-year-old phase’? What’ll it take for me to love my reflection? Because every time I say to myself, ‘You’re beautiful,’ it feels like a lie.”

This girl has already learned two ignoble truths about appearance in our culture: That, as a woman, nothing she accomplishes will ever be considered as important as how she looks, and that the conventional definition of feminine beauty in our culture is both extraordinarily narrow and radically different from what most women look like.

Consider Hollywood’s current It Girl, Keira Knightley. Knightley has a body mass that places her in the second percentile of the population. If her weight were to deviate as radically in the other direction — in other words, if she were in the 98th percentile of body mass — she would weigh approximately 300 pounds.

Yet Knightley is presented by our media-industrial complex as a completely natural object of male desire, while men attracted to 300-pound women are considered to be in the grip of a bizarre fetish. (Meanwhile, the archetypal male sex symbol, Brad Pitt, has a BMI of 27, which also happens to be the average BMI of middle-aged American men.)

All this is reflected by a diet culture that tells girls and women to starve themselves, but not to the point where they actually have to be hospitalized (that would qualify as an “eating disorder”).

As disturbing as so-called “pro-ana” Web sites are (such sites offer cyberspace where people with eating disorders reinforce each other’s behavior, by, for example, posting photographs of their emaciated bodies as a form of what posters call “thinspiration”), I have a lot of sympathy for the adolescent girls who dominate these sites.

These girls deal every day with the bottomless hypocrisy of a culture that screams at them that extreme thinness is synonymous with beauty, and that being fat, or rather “fat” — i.e., of average size — is a catastrophe, and then recoils in horror from the skeletal images — i.e., just slightly thinner than Keira Knightley — those messages inevitably produce.

Those messages killed my friend, just as surely as they killed and are killing countless others (anorexia has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness, with perhaps half the deaths from the disease being suicides).

They nearly killed Diane Israel. Israel was an elite triathlete who lost her career and almost her life to the all-too-common combination of disordered eating and compulsive exercise.

Israel has spent the last four years making a film called “Beauty Mark,” which uses her own experiences as a starting point to explore our culture’s obsession with a narrow definition of beauty, and the self-destructive things people do to pursue it.

It’s a powerful, important and often moving document (I appear in the film, but have no financial interest in the project). I wish my friend had lived to see it.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)