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W, Orientalism, and Eating Disorders

W magazine recently sent fashion photographer Tim Walker and supermodel Edie Campbell to Burma, where they shot an editorial that juxtaposed Campbell (so white! so chic!) against the a background of the nation’s “exotic” landmarks and citizens. It’s gross and poorly conceived of in every way that one would expect.

– Callie Beusman via Jezebel

Full text here

W spread

While this might not immediately seem like an eating disorder related topic- the representation of people of various identities in the media is central to issues of body image and self-confidence. Those of us in the eating disorder world are familiar with rhetoric around the sexual objectification of women’s bodies and how that can be a lead to negative body image and unhealthy behaviors, which can be contributing factors in eating disorders. Representing citizens of countries other than the US and representing people of color as background images and props is equally dehumanizing and dangerous.

The Jezebel article does a great job of explaining what is so very wrong with this spread in W, but we’d like to explore how media like this contributes to health disparities in marginalized communities by feeding into cultural factors that contribute to eating disorders. In the two images above, the fashion model is juxtaposed next to a Buddhist monk and Kayan tribeswomen. Her clothing, accessories, and sometimes even body posture reflect the folks she poses with, seemingly through a lens of “fashion”, which at the same time strips them of their meaning and significance. The pose the model mimics in the photo with the monk is actually the monk begging for alms. Besides which, the orange robes he is wearing have religious significance. By having the model put on orange cloths and adapting a similar body position- without actually engaging in begging- the shoot is emphasizing only the aesthetic of these elements while making them devoid of meaning. The model wearing brass rings creates a similar effect. Kayan tribeswomen wear these rings as a way of expressing and preserving a unique cultural identity. When someone who is not part of that culture mimics this expression, clearly not choosing to take part in it but simply alluding to it in her own accessories, the purpose and value in wearing the rings is lost. Not only are these examples culturally disrespectful, they perpetuate attitudes that value aesthetic over meaning: a belief system that directly contributes to eating disorders.

Eating disorders are not about food or weight. Symptoms of eating disorders focus around food and body image, but the disorder emerges from biological and psychological roots. Food and weight are the methods of expression of these underlying concerns- not themselves causes of disorders. Conflating weight concerns with eating disorders leads to dangerous thinking, like believing eating disorders are choices or phases or expressions of vanity. These beliefs feed into other dangerous myths about eating disorders, like saying they only affect affluent, white, teenage girls. Culturally perpetuated myths such as these prevent people from seeking treatment. In Minnesota alone, 180,000 people struggle with eating disorders and less than half seek treatment. We need to break down these myths and shine a light on the truth about eating disorders: ALL media messaging that objectifies and dehumanizes people are a contributing factor to eating disorders. ALL media messaging that says certain bodies are less than others are a contributing factor in eating disorders. ALL systems of oppression that value some identities over others are contributing factors to eating disorders. Eating disorders are as or more prevalent than breast cancer, than HIV, than schizophrenia. Eating disorders have the highest fatality rate of any mental illness. We need to speak out against harmful media messaging and cultural attitudes to inspire change and save lives.

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