“Pregorexia”: Are Celebrities Really to Blame?

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

Yesterday morning, I fished around in my dresser drawer for a pair of pants that wouldn’t make me hate myself. I grimaced when I realized the only option was a pair of threadbare maternity jeans. I let out an exasperated sigh, because with a toddler in tow, I’m outside of the acceptable window to still be rocking the baby weight.

Of course, that last line is a little disingenuous, because it suggests that the hate-hate relationship I have been known to have with my body resurfaced with all the other baggage of motherhood.  In actuality, I experimented with my first crash diet at nine, and that eating disordered thinking blossomed into full-blown bulimia by the time I was 14. While my friends focused their dreams on age-appropriate goals like what car they would buy with the wages from their after-school jobs, I secretly wished for a body that I could shape into my idea of perfection.

Still, it’s understandable why I might be tempted to engage in revision, and blame pregnancy for destroying my healthy sense of self. To say our culture is fat phobic is an understatement. The United States is a country which protects fat discrimination in the work place, normalizes scare tactics to bully children of size under the guise of providing a public service announcement, and has an ingrained bias against weight that rivals or perhaps even surpasses racism.

And it’s also a country that holds special contempt for the weight of women, particularly weight in connection with pregnancy.

Recently, The Huffington Post ran a piece from the Canadian Press, arguing that celebrities are responsible for fostering eating disorders among ordinary women. The phenomenon of assigning responsibility to the rich and famous for unrealistic body images or unhealthy body behaviors isn’t a new one. Numerous headlines graced tabloid covers about celebrities Angelina Jolie, Nicole Richie and Tori Spelling during their respective pregnancies, questioning the bodies behind blossoming baby bumps.

Which is a major roadblock to critics quick to point fingers at the members of the glitterati, at least in the various stages of pregnancy. The celebrities being blamed for leading fellow pregnant women into dangerous territory with disordered eating aren’t new to the scene of body obsession. Richie’s weight was frequent fodder for the media after several seasons of “The Simple Life,” which predated her pregnancy by several years. Jolie’s 2006 pregnancy with daughter Shiloh Nouvel was hardly the first time the general public described the actress as “skeletal.” In other words, women who struggle with their weight during pregnancy, most likely had body image issues prior to becoming pregnant.

It’s an important distinction. Even the very name, “pregorexia,” implies a unique and separate eating disorder, instead of recognizing a preexisting condition that may have been triggered or exacerbated by pregnancy. There are, no doubt certainly women out there whose disordered eating habits first emerged during the weight gain that accompanies pregnancy, but the numbers are likely to be (no pun intended) slim. Melissa Henriquez and Kate Wicker, two women who became something of the poster children for “pregorexia” when they were featured on a segment of 20/20 devoted to the subject last spring. Both admit to suffering from eating disordered behavior long before they ever became pregnant. In fact, Paula Deakins, a specialist for pregnant women with eating disorders, says that 60 to 70 percent of eating disordered women actually experience a “remission” during their pregnancy, only to have the symptoms intensify during the postpartum period.

That hasn’t stopped the media from attempting to diagnose each expectant mother-to-be that doesn’t meet our modern perceptions of what pregnancy should look like, especially with changing medical guidelines. A few years back, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council sharply reduced their weight gain guideline for pregnant women, insisting that women with a Body Mass Index of 30 or more should limit their gain to between 11 and 20 pounds.

The reliance on the faulty BMI isn’t really shocking; the BMI’s failure to distinguish between the weight of muscle and the weight of fat and is well-established, but doctors continue to use it as a standard to determine an individual’s overall health. However, what makes the Institute’s updated guidelines newsworthy is that it was the first such revision in almost 20 years. The updated emphasis on weight control seems to coincide directly with the emergence of the “pregorexia” phenomenon.

In fact, a search through Google archives will show that the term didn’t emerge until 2008, about the same time the new guidelines were introduced, and around the same time celebrity baby mania took the country by storm. It suggests more than a fleeting connection between our obsession with celebrities and inability to recognize that pregnant bodies come in many shapes and sizes.

Which leads to an entirely different problem. Whether we realize it or not, our obsession with the bodies, both pregnant and postpartum, of celebrity women is a clever, largely ignored element of the War on Women. The very assertion is bound to conjure up the more overt scenes of battle—systematically rolling back rights of reproductive autonomy through Personhood amendments for uterine lining, for example. But advocates need to understand that every tabloid cover featuring a story of “amazing weight loss” by a new mom is hostile territory. It tells society that these bodies are the only ones to emulate to be accepted. And the message is to women is even more insidiously clear: even the most powerful must adhere to these completely unrealistic standards, or they won’t be powerful for very long.

As Liz W. Garcia so brilliantly opines in an article for Forbes, the obsession with these bodies presents a “disturbing dynamic,” where women are taught to devalue themselves as objects for public consumption and judgment. Garcia further writes about a culture that so devalues women, government controls their reproductive choices while the media controls the acceptability of the body.

“We are a culture that values child-bearing — consider the obsession with celebrity children as evidence thereof, not to mention Personhood amendments — and yet we expect our childbearing populous to shed the physical evidence of said childbearing as soon as possible. On the one hand, this would seem hypocritical. On the other, it’s depressingly consistent, and the consistent element is misogyny. Let’s say it again, ’cause it’s happening: Misogyny.”

And the misogyny takes many forms when it comes to the postpartum bodies of celebrities. Janice Min recently attracted some headlines of her own with an editorial about the unfair tabloid standards for celebrity moms after she was criticized for looking pregnant at four months postpartum. The irony? Min, the former editor of Us magazine, helped create those standards, as Tracie Egan Morrissey breaks down at Jezebel. It was under her leadership that “Us” introduced the phrase ‘baby bump’ into our lexicon (to the impressive tune of $1.2 million a year for Min herself) and started a culture-wide obsession with the Shilohs, Suris, and Kingstons, as well as the bodies that bore them.

In her defensive testimonial for The New York Times, Min dismisses responsibility for creating the “boomerang body” narrative, insisting that her seven-year run of “Us” simply responded to the demands of her (female) readers of “cute moms and babies”. She describes weight loss as “female entertainment,” clearly a euphemism for “providing women with the means through which to tear each other down.”

We feel comfortable judging celebrity bodies because we’re encouraged to judge each other and ourselves just as harshly. When it comes to celebrities, we’ve been indoctrinated to believing their bodies, like their contributions to the art and entertainment world, are simply more of the same. Min’s own tenure at “Us” introduced an ongoing feature titled, “Stars: They’re Just Like US” to showcase how celebrities grocery shop, rent movies, and walk the family dog. They buy Coach purses, Ugg boots, and suffer from eating disorders. Just like “Us.”

However, if we accept that stars with eating disordered behavior are just like us, isn’t it possible that the same celebrities being accused of spurring forth a massive uprising in disordered eating are actually the same victims of the patriarchy that tells us we have to be ashamed of our body at any stage?

Related Content:

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The Skinny on Pregnancy Weight Gain

Pregnancy, Body Image and the Age of “Bump Watch”

What’s Up with the Super-Skinny Demonic Pregnancy in “Breaking Dawn”?

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