Carrie Fisher, the woman who launched a thousand nerd fandoms as heroine Princess Leia from “Star Wars,” has recently joined the ranks of Kirstie Alley and Valerie Bertinelli in pimping out subscription diet plans. As the newest face of Jenny Craig, Fisher discusses the pain associated with being fat.
“The world is a hostile place for a fat person,” she states in her 66-second promo. “There is a very thin person in here, trying to get out.”
She then tells viewers that losing weight alone is difficult to do, making her Jenny Craig consultant essential to losing weight. She signs off by reminding the world that size reflects how one feels, and admitting she didn’t realize she “felt this bad” in gesturing towards her ample body size.
As her commercial asks in the opening fragment, what happened to Carrie Fisher? Better yet, what’s happened in Hollywood that hawking diet products seems to be the only way for female entertainers to revive careers stalled by their entrance into middle age?
When Cheers actress Kirstie Alley first became the spokesperson for Jenny Craig in 2004, it was after several years of speculation that her career was over. Long considered one of Hollywood’s “sexpots,” the then-53-year-old’s star had dimmed as her weight increased. During her three-year run with the company, Alley slimmed down to 145 pounds and also starred in a semi-scripted reality TV show called Fat Actress. Even after Alley and Jenny Craig parted ways in 2007, Alley continued cashing paychecks on the back of her diet struggle.
Celebrities endorsing fad diets and prescriptions is nothing new, and has become a prosperous venture for the young Hollywood elite such as Jennifer Hudson and the Kardashian sisters. But for those cut from the same time period as Alley, pitching diet plans and services seems to be illustrating a way to resurrect a stalled or even dead career. When former sweetheart Marie Osmond signed on to endorse Nutrisystem, it wasn’t long before she was courted by Dancing with the Stars. Valerie Bertinelli had a similar revival after she became a spokesperson for Jenny Craig and then landed her first recurring role in almost a decade with TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland.
Although it may seem like progress to see so many older actresses receiving paying gigs, but in reality, the success of these comeback queens is a double-edged sword. The message? You can be successful as a middle-aged actress, but only if you treat a few extra pounds like a serious addiction and wage a very public battle with the bulge.
The end result? Millions of women being told, on a daily basis that they are incapable of managing their weight on their own—the question of why they need to manage their weight is never posed—and are in need of guidance. If celebrities, with all of their access to personal trainers and/or equipment, opt for the every woman program of food modification and points calculation, it becomes easy for viewers to see the commercials as a guiding light.
Yet most of the public is unaware of just how involved the celebrity spokesperson actually is with the companies they’re promoting. Much like Rosie O’Donnell criticized Star Jones for failing to attribute her weight loss to gastric bypass surgery, there’s a reason commercials for weight management programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers have to carry a disclaimer that the impressive results showcased on television are “not typical.” Many of the testimonials don’t reveal how much weight that particular star lost, instead explaining the system, formula, or in some cases, advertised discount for the service.
The reason for the deception is patently obvious. If dieting worked, and worked as well as companies would like people to believe, you would only have to do it once. As Susie Orbach explains in her book Bodies, an exploration of the Western obsession with being thin, companies peddling diet solutions rely on customers failing the unrealistic standards of maintenance contained in the requirements.
“Diet companies rely on a 95 per cent recidivism rate: a figure that should be etched into every dieter’s consciousness,” she writes. “One wonders what forces prevent prosecution under the Trade Descriptions Act. Diet companies require return customers who will come back again and again to buy their products and services. Their profitability depends upon failure and their programmes ensure that failure happens.”
Orbach highlights a troubling prospect, that diet companies put programs into place that they know will ultimately spell failure for the participants. This might be considered a byproduct of opting to join such a program, except that society has a deeply ingrained prejudice against people of size. This time last year, director Kevin Smith was famously ejected from a Southwest Airlines flight because he refused to buy two tickets under their “Persons of Size.” It was a stark reminder that in most states, people of size have no protection from discrimination. Add in the painful reality that employers can impose weight restrictions and insurance companies have the option to carve out benefits based on size, and it’s incredible that there are still Americans who haven’t tried the snake oil of managed weight loss.
The issue becomes particularly thorny for women, who have the added sexism to compete with while confronting backwards body assumptions. In April of 2009, Michigan State University released the results of a study that found that plus-sized women were more likely to be fired than thin women, men of size were more likely to be promoted.
It’s worth noting that while Jason Alexander’s use of Jenny Craig is the worst-kept secret in Hollywood, the former Seinfeld sidekick has yet to shoot his own commercial endorsement of the company. Simply put, it’s unlikely the man who originated George Costanza could be as motivating as Fisher, whose career largely sprang from her ability to cover a barely-there gold bikini in “Star Wars.” And it’s that angle companies like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers count on. In this respect, stars are encouraging the cultural war being fought against persons of size to essentially be lost.