French model and actress Isabelle Caro was just 30 when she passed away in November of 2010. Her death was not caused by a drug overdose, car accident or cancerous tumor, all of which we’re too often forced to tragically associate with young fatalities. Rather, it was the result of a respiratory disease that doctors presumed to be the consequence of severe anorexia nervosa.
Indeed, as portraits by photographer Olivero Toscani showed, Caro’s paperlike skin clung desperately to her skeleton. Her ribs, collarbones and jaw cut violently defined lines across her figure, and her pale blue eyes appeared exaggeratedly huge in her gaunt, worn face. At the worst of her anorexia, Caro carried a mere 55 pounds on her five-foot, five-inch frame.
That’s the rough equivalent of the 50th-percentile weight of a 7.8-year-old male, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Caro’s case clearly epitomizes the most extreme result of eating disorders, which are particularly prone to plaguing those in image-focused industries such as fashion or aesthetic sports. As model Cameron Russell said in an October 2012 TED Talk, “Models — (who) have the thinnest thighs, the shiniest hair and the coolest clothes…are (probably) the most physically insecure women on the planet.”
But eating disorders, as well as body image issues as a whole, are hardly reserved for those in specific professional fields. And those on college campuses are especially disposed to affectedness.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91 percent of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, while 22 percent reported to have dieted “often” or “always.” Meanwhile, 58 percent of those surveyed noted that they felt pressure to maintain a certain weight, and 25 percent engaged in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.
Media perpetuate our cultural notions of the ideal female, even though the so-called “optimal” female body type is naturally possessed by only five percent of American women, the Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders states. The rest is up to skilled professionals and sophisticated photo-editing software.
“(Magazine) pictures (of me) are not pictures of me,” Russell said. “They are constructions…by hairstylists and makeup artists and photographers and stylists and all of their assistants and pre-production and post-production…that’s not me.”
And overarching physical expectations are not exclusive to women. The perfect male physique blends bulging arms with rippling abs and chiseled, smoldering facial features. The high pressure for men to look like personal trainers lends itself to supplement and steroid use, not to mention hours logged at the gym each day.
Beyond even that, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of those with anorexia or bulimia are male. More dangerously, such men are less likely to seek treatment for such disorders because of the perception that they are “women’s diseases,” the American Psychological Association says.
Lehigh’s student body has a reputation for both thinness and fitness, likely due to the university’s perch on a mountain. We trek up and down hundreds of stairs simply to accommodate our daily schedules, essentially building extra workouts into our lives by default.
But that’s not to suggest that the campus’s location alone leads us to become magically skinny or toned. Most students — indeed, most people — have to work at that. Why?
Maybe because we want to. But also because we’re almost culturally obligated to.
“If you’re not ‘hot,’ you are expected to work on it until you are,” Tina Fey writes in her autobiographical comedy, “Bossypants.” “It’s like when you renovate a house and you’re legally required to leave just one of the original walls standing. If you don’t have a good body, you’d better starve the body you have down to a neutral shape, then bolt on some breast implants, replace your teeth, dye your skin orange, inject your lips, sew on some hair and call yourself the Playmate of the Year.”
As college students, we often make fun of commonly practiced poses like the “sorority squat” or the “skinny arm,” as well as ubiquitous, heavily edited selfies. But how can we judge, when our cultural standard is to exude physical beauty at all times?
Not only are such expectations unrealistic — they’re also blatantly unhealthy. If needed, we should certainly take measures to improve our health. But we shouldn’t be pressured to sacrifice our well-being simply to attain perceived perfection.
“Image may be powerful,” Russell said. “But image is superficial.”