Don't Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip's New Schizophrenia

“It’s sort of awful. Yesterday for lunch? Spinach… and some seeds.”

“I swear by almost nothing for breakfast. Mugs of hot water!”

“The other day I realized as long as I’m in this business, I’m going to be hungry.”

“I hate dieting… I’m hungry all the time.”

These quotes aren’t from a medical journal. They’re not from a psychology book on body image in modern society. They’re not from a Lifetime Channel docudrama on eating disorders.

They’re from an Us Weekly Magazine half-page celebrity puff piece (Sept. 13, 2010, Page 18), titled “Don’t Feed the Stars!”, on how “these celebs admit it’s a diet struggle to keep their fab figures.”

Encapsulating the celebrity gossip magazine’s bone-deep schizophrenia about dieting and body size… in one neat sentence.


Thus begins my latest Media Darling column on CarnalNation, Don’t Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip’s New Schizophrenia. To find out more about the celebrity-industrial complex’s freakishly self-contradictory attitude towards diet and weight loss — and the deeply mixed messages it sends the rest of us about food, beauty, bodies, and sex — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

Don't Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip's New Schizophrenia

11 thoughts on “Don't Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip's New Schizophrenia

  1. Kit

    Can I ask that you reconsider the use of the word ‘schizophrenia’? People with mental illnesses meet very serious discrimination, and one reason for that is that most people don’t understand very much about how mental illness actually works. In particular, people find it hard to grasp that it’s involuntary and not some kind of failure of will or character, and can end up treating sick people harshly as a result.
    The fact that we use words like ”schizophrenic’ in casual conversation to describe a voluntary and unreasonable state of mind tends to support that problem, and it’s a problem that winds up hurting a lot of innocent people. People with mental illnesses struggle in a society that’s full of misinformation about their problems, and using ‘schizophrenic’ to mean ‘inconsistent’ or ‘contradictory’ is, in a small way, helping to spread that misinformation by using it about people who *are* showing poor judgement or character. As an articulate writer I’m sure you can find alternative words that don’t bolster misconceptions about sick people, so it would be great if you could.

  2. 2

    Kit: I would be happy to consider alternate words. Would you like to suggest some?
    I actually seriously considered the question of whether to use the casual, colloquial, non-medical use of the word “schizophrenia” in this context. When it comes to language, I’m a usagist and not a prescriptivist: I’m fine with the meanings of words changing, and I’m fine with technical or scientific terms taking on colloquial meanings that are different from the original technical or scientific ones. But I did think carefully about using this one colloquially. I decided to go with it because I couldn’t think of another word that had the same meaning and connotations and emotional impact as the colloquial, non-medical use of “schizophrenia.” If you can suggest some, I’d be happy to consider them for the future.

  3. 3

    The inanity of celebrity gossip magazines writ large. I am not going to tell anyone not to read them (because I certainly read my share of useless crap for entertainment), but people really should do their best to regard every and anything they see in those magazines as the flapdoodle that it is.

  4. 4

    However: to what extent do these things really prescribe any sort of societal trends? Has anybody ever actually studied this? Perhaps we are all wringing our hands in despair over the pernicious influence these magazines have when in fact the have no effect and are merely reflecting an underlying reality that has entirely different causes?
    I am not aware of any research that has been done to determine this (though, of course, I am no expert).
    To put it in other terms: do girls become anorexic because they are given the message that “that” is what their bodies should look like, or do they get this idea from somewhere else and then buy the magazines that show them what they want to see?

  5. 5

    First time commenting, but long time reading (I *think* I’ve read all of Greta’s blog:). Kit above shines a light on word use that we would all do well to keep nearer the front of our minds. Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Bipolar, Obsessive-Compulsive. I think I’ve heard all those disorders used casually, jokingly. In the present case, Greta, how about….a reference to Jekel and Hyde? Two-faced Janus? Talking out of both sides of one’s mouth? You used the term cognitive dissonance, I believe, in the body of the article. That’s all I can think of at this hour of night (morning).
    Main point of the article was spot on–as usual, Greta. (OT, but I notice you’ve changed your photo–very nice. You glow, girl!:))

  6. Kit

    *Kit: I would be happy to consider alternate words. Would you like to suggest some?*
    I feel a bit wary of telling you what words you should use, as you’re a fine writer who doesn’t need me dictating over your shoulder, and when it comes to finding an alternative, there’s no one good answer. The inconvenient thing is that because we have the slang word ‘schizophrenic’, which does the job of describing a dissonant, confused or hypocritical position very nicely, there hasn’t been a need for an exactly equivalent word.
    So I think it’s a question of different synonyms being right in different contexts. ‘Cognitive dissonance’, for example, which you used, is a more accurate way of describing the attitude. Or even just ‘silliness’ or ‘stupidity’. Or ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, as yokohamamama suggests. Or that Chinatown line, ‘My sister! My daughter! My sister! My daughter!’ Or another title altogether. I don’t think there’s a single word that’s a precise alternative – language doesn’t tend to supply exact equivalents, because if two words mean exactly the same thing, one becomes redundant and will either drop out of use or take on a divergent meaning. But I think there are lots of different ways to express the concept.
    Most of the time I think descriptivism is the way to go. But inconvenient though losing the word ‘schizophrenic’ is, I really think it’s like losing the phrase ‘Jew him down’. We don’t have an exact equivalent for that either, but that’s not a reason to keep using it.
    Not using the word is, I freely acknowledge, a pain in the butt sometimes. I think it’s a pain in the butt worth taking for the team, and one that a writer as good as you can get round, but I can’t pretend there’s an easy alternative.

  7. 7

    I feel a bit wary of telling you what words you should use

    Ummm… Kit, I think that horse has already left the barn. 🙂
    You’re already telling me what words I should use. Or rather, you’re telling me what words I shouldn’t use, which isn’t very different.
    And that’s fine. If I say something incorrect or say it poorly, I want people to call me on it. But in my experience, telling people, “You’re doing this wrong,” without offering suggestions on how they can do it right, doesn’t leave people feeling like they’ve been pointed in the right direction. It leaves people feeling guilty and defensive, without any way out of it. If you’re going to tell people, “Don’t use Word X, it’s offensive or insensitive,” it’s going to help your cause more if you can suggest alternatives. Even if they aren’t perfect.

  8. 8

    Greta Christina, when she is in a position of privilege (able-minded) is telling somebody who called her on the abuse of that privilege (inappropriate use of a word pertaining to mental illness) how to do social justice.
    I never thought I’d see this happen. I guess there’s a first time for everything.
    Personally, I see a big difference between somebody saying ‘X is offensive, could you please rephrase’ and what I would call telling someone what words to use – ‘you must use word Y when referring to Z’.

  9. 10

    You’re already telling me what words I should use. Or rather, you’re telling me what words I shouldn’t use, which isn’t very different.
    Well, I see a difference, in that ‘maybe don’t use one particular word’ gives a whole lot more freedom to manoevre than ‘use this word instead.’
    (I speak as a professional writer who’s finickity when it comes to being edited: if an editor doesn’t like my use of a particular word I’m almost always willing to change it, but if they suggest an alternative I almost always find it subtly clashes with my style, and prefer to come up with a third alternative myself. You may vary on this, but that was the assumption I was going on.)
    But I’m also wary because, like I said, there isn’t an exact substitute. The best alternative is going to be different from context to context, and I can’t anticipate every possible context for future reference. It’s going to be a question of what matches your style and intentions, and you know more about those than me.
    With that proviso established, I think I did suggest some alternatives, like dissonant, confused, silliness, stupidity, Jekyll and Hyde and My-sister-my-daughter. That’s quite a few alternatives. Doing my best here.
    In the name of helpfulness, a few more: if you want alternatives for this particular title, how about ‘double bind’? Or ‘Catch 22’? Or ‘no-win scenario’? Those wouldn’t be appropriate to every context, of course, which is kind of my point: you really need the specific context before you can suggest a good alternative.
    The thing is, I’m not speaking for a movement that’s determined on a particular word as preferable, the way I would be if I was saying, for instance, ‘African American is preferable to black’ or ‘gay is preferable to queer (or vice versa)’. I’m speaking as one individual who’s known people with mental illnesses. I don’t have the authority of a movement to propose a term that’s generally acceptable to all. All I’ve got is some personal experience and opinions. If there’s any kind of movement to defend the rights of people with mental illnesses it’s in its very, very early days, and burdened with the problem that, unlike race or sexual orientation, mental illness actually is a problem. There are far more questions than answers here.
    I’m not trying to make you feel guilty or defensive, if that’s what you meant by ‘people’. And I don’t think this is ‘my’ cause; most people know someone with a mental illness, which makes it ‘our’ cause, surely.
    All I can say is that, until the day the English language provides a good alternative, the ‘don’t’ will be easier than the ‘do’, but I very much doubt it’s something you can’t manage. I’ve made what suggestions I could; they probably won’t work in every future context. Sorry.

  10. 11

    Well, I see a difference, in that ‘maybe don’t use one particular word’ gives a whole lot more freedom to manoevre than ‘use this word instead.’

    I can see that. I guess I just see a difference between suggesting a different term without any prompting, and suggesting a different term when someone is specifically asking for suggestions. I could see how you’d be wary of doing the former; I’m not quite sure why the latter would be a problem.
    But I do recognize that there may not be a good substitute, and that I may, as you suggested, just have to suck it up and be imprecise in the service of being respectful. Which is fine. (Well, not “fine,” exactly — as a writer, it’s going to drive me up a tree — but valid.)
    And thanks for bringing this up. It hasn’t been a comfortable conversation, but it’s been very worthwhile.

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