Jelly Bean (r) and friends know they are working it.
90210 wasn’t really my jam. (Sure Luke Perry was cute and all but Jordan Catalano stole my flannel-shirt-wrapped heart on My So-Called Life. I’m a monogamous TV dater.) So Tori Spelling has never been one of those actresses I’ve had strong feelings about one way or the other. There was a brief moment when she had four kids close together while I had four kids close together that I got a little squishy feeling for her but that evaporated in a sea of tabloid covers. Yet she confessed something recently that’s been on my mind ever since:
In her latest book, Spelling It Like It Is, Tori actually admitted to lying to Us for a post-baby bikini body story to make her version of events more palatable. To lose weight after her fourth kid she said she went on the “Just Keep Your F*cking Mouth Shut and Eat Air diet.” But she knew that starvation wouldn’t make her relatable to new mothers struggling with their weight.
Tori explained the deception: “For the Us Weekly photo shoot the next day, my publicist had given me clear instructions as to what I should say about my weight loss. Women didn’t want to know that I had lost weight through dieting, not exercising. I didn’t want to be the a**hole who didn’t work for it. So I said that I swam. It was sort of a bad choice. I can’t do much more than doggy-paddle.”
(From a Jezebel article on how Tori and her husband faked a cheating scandal to launch her “Real Tori” reality show – super interesting if you care how your entertainment sausage is made.)
It was sort of a bad choice. I’m honestly not sure whether she means that lying to vulnerable new moms about starving herself to lose the baby weight was the bad choice or if she just means picking swimming as her fallacious exercise of choice was bad since apparently she can’t really do it. (Go with Tracy Anderson’s workout next time, Tori! Everyone in Hollywood is doing it and it’s so boring that no one will check up on you to see if you can really do it!) But hey, does anyone really expect a celeb to be honest about their diet/exercise/weight loss/pills? You have actresses more than willing to spill all about how they groom their pubes but when asked about their trim figure it’s always, “I walk my dog and do yoga.” And on a fun day they add, “And I looooove hamburgers and milkshakes!”
It took me reading about a new study, published this week in the JAMA Pediatrics, to realize why Tori’s artifice is still bothering me a week after I read about it. Because the study looked at what happens to little girls when they are told they are fat.
The study followed 2,379 girls (half white and half African-American) living in California, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. and tracked their height and weight from age 10 to age 19. At the outset of the study, “58% of the participants had been called “too fat” by a close family member, friend, or boy or girl she liked.”
The data showed that the girls who had been called fat as children were 66% more likely to be clinically obese at the end of the study. The results were unchanged when researchers controlled for a number of factors that could have contributed to individuals’ likelihood of becoming obese, such as race, parental education, income, and the age at which they reached puberty, and even whether or not the girls were actually obese to begin with. As author A. Janet Tomiyama, PhD explains in the study’s press release, “That means it’s not just that heavier girls are called too fat and are still heavy years later; being labeled as too fat is creating an additional likelihood of being obese.“
Scientific proof that fat-shaming doesn’t work and may even have the opposite effect. And not only was that true for girls who were overweight but it also had the same effect on many of the young girls who weren’t overweight to begin with. So no Tori didn’t tell little girls they are fat – she did something even worse, in my opinion. She told their mothers that it’s more important to be skinny than it is to be healthy and if you have to lie to those who care about you and abuse yourself to do it, then so be it. And those are the mothers who are hating themselves when they can’t swim the weight off. And those are the mothers who teach their daughters how to be a woman in this world.
Words matter. Especially when you’re talking about weight.
And then I came across this heart-breaking story of a mom posting her anorexic daughter’s hospital pics in a desperate attempt to raise money for her daughter’s expensive eating disorder treatments. The mother explained that her daughter Emma’s 16-year battle with bulimia and anorexia started when at 8 years old she heard her dance teacher make a critical “too fat” remark. The interesting thing is that the dance teacher wasn’t even talking about Emma but rather about another student.
Now, I’m not saying that one teacher’s off-hand remark caused a crap storm of ED’d behavior that ended up with Emma attempting suicide and being tube fed for over a year. There are serious sociological, genetic, environmental and biological factors that go into eating disorders and it would be a great disservice to try and simplify a complicated mental illness down to one cause. Yet it’s also true that a vulnerable 8-year-old heard the remark and internalized it in an extremely harmful way.
I’ve talked to many, many women over the years who have hurt themselves — by eating too much or too little, by bingeing or purging, by overexercising or self-harming — who have a similar “remark” story. Whether today they are skinny, average weight or overweight, at some point someone said something to them when they were a little girl that became the rallying cry for their eating disorder.
For me it was “Wow, you sure are eating a lot. Are you sure you need that much food? Even I don’t eat that many servings a day!” I was in a 6th-grade health class and our assignment had been to track all the food we ate for two weeks and then turn in our food journals to be scrutinized by our thin, pretty teacher in front of the class. I know she meant it to be helpful. I know she wasn’t trying to tell me to go get me one of those new-fangled eating disorder diets. And yet, I did.
Suddenly I was looking around at the other girl’s charts, hyperaware that mine did show more food than theirs. I became determined to lower mine by the next check-in period. Two weeks later I’d done so well I had the least amount of food on my list of any girl there. That feeling of “winning”, of the approval of my teacher and of the envy of my classmates, was intoxicating. And that’s how my eating disorder began. It would take me nearly two decades to break free of that stupid, tyrannical food journal and everything it implied.
Words matter. Words have meaning far beyond what they say.
And we’re using our words to talk about the wrong things. We have celebrities talking about “eating air.” We have women using diet talk as the way they bond with each other. We have people telling little girls they are fat in an effort to “help” them. Instead, I wish we would use our words to tell our bodies thank you. Thank you for being strong and determined and for carrying me through all the hard times in my life. I wish we would tell our daughters (and sons) Your weight has nothing to do with you as a person. You are smart. You are beautiful. You are strong. You are every good thing. And then I wish we could tell the little girls inside us that — and have them believe it.
I feel like I talk about this a lot. Sometimes I even annoy myself – teaching positive self worth is so much more than a trite post full of righteous anger and cute aphorisms. And yet I feel like I have to keep talking about this because, well, I forget. So many things are telling me the opposite – and there are so many little “remarks” – that I keep talking, even if it’s just to drown them out in my head. And because if words have the power to do all that damage then that also means they have immense power to help fix it. Words matter.
*What we say to boys also matters too. As a mom of three boys I am deeply aware of the ways they too are told they are less than. I used “girls” in my post because that’s who the study looked at it but we do certainly need to soak kindly to everyone, regardless of age, race or gender!
Did anyone ever say anything to you when you were a kid that had a profound effect on the way you saw yourself? If you’ve ever had a troubled relationship with food (ED or no), do you remember what sparked it? (Again, I want to reiterate that I’m NOT saying a single comment causes an eating disorder, rather that they can act as a catalyst in an already vulnerable person.) And 90’s showdown: Luke Perry vs. Jared Leto – who wins??