Tuesday, October 22

L.A. popular culture hinders eating-disorder recovery


For Anna Hollaender, tuning her television to red-carpet coverage of the Oscars became dangerous in a matter of minutes. Slender celebrities squeezed into impossible dresses conjure up impulses Hollaender said she must suppress every day.

“I start comparing and despairing if I watch it any longer than that,” said Hollaender, who spoke to UCLA students last week about her recovery from an eating disorder she was diagnosed with at age 20.

“You can’t help but think that’s the only way to be,” she added.

A 2007 USC graduate, Hollaender is a youth outreach speaker for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign.

Her speech in De Neve Plaza last Wednesday was part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Hollaender’s measures to limit her intake of mass media, where thinness is often synonymous with value, is not unusual for those attempting to recover from an eating disorder, said Dr. Hope Levin, a psychiatrist at UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services. She said Hollaender’s restraint highlights the peculiar effect society can have on eating disorders.

Levin said that, while rarely the root cause of an eating disorder, popular culture can add fuel to the fire.

“I think for people who are vulnerable, it could play more of a role,” she said.

Although eating disorders affect people all over the world, Levin said the environment in Los Angeles has a few extra pitfalls for people recovering from an eating disorder.

A number of recovering patients tell her they must abstain from looking at certain magazines or watching particular television programs and even avoid restaurants or supermarkets with more diet-oriented products, she said.

“I think you get a lot more of that thing in L.A.,” she said..

Norman Kim, a clinical psychologist at UCLA and the program director for Oceanaire, an eating disorder treatment facility in Palos Verdes, said the stron- gest risk factors associated with eating disorders are low self-esteem, insecurity and issues with depression and anxiety. However, those factors are not unaffect- ed by a person’s surroundings, he said.

“Anything that is going to exacerbate those vulnerabilities is going to make it worse,” Kim said.

In a city that stands at the center of the entertainment industry and whose residents choose body-exposing shorts and T-shirts most of the year, UCLA stu- dents must also contend with the inher- ent strains of campus life, Kim said.

“College is extraordinarily stressful,” Kim said.

Body weight can indirectly become part of a student’s extracurriculars in sororities, for instance, where Kim said female students are automatically com- pared to other women.

In fields where one’s physique is on display, such as athletics or performing arts, the pressure can be even greater, Kim said.

Wendy Temple, the undergraduate student counselor for the UCLA Depart- ment of World Arts and Cultures, said that, although not wildly prevalent, eat- ing disorders are common among stu- dents in dance concentration.

“The nature of dance and dancers ““ it comes up,” Temple said. “You’re facing yourself in the mirror every day and you’re next to or behind someone who has some beautiful body. … I think that doesn’t help.”

Abigail Saguy, an assistant professor in the sociology department, said that thinness is tied to success ““ especially for women ““ across many contemporary cultures in a so-called weight hierarchy.

It has been documented for instance, Saguy said, that heavier women are less likely to be hired than thinner women with the same qualifications.

The notion that body weight is under personal control is ingrained in many societies, she said, and is reinforced by the United States’ strong sense of self- reliance.

“People think that, “˜Well, I might not be able to grow taller and I might not be able to change my skin color, but I can change my weight,’ which

is only partially true,” Saguy said. The struggle to make the body adhere to an external standard may not only be in vain, but it can also quickly siphon away time to enjoy surround- ings, said Gia Marson, a psychologist at CAPS. “We’re in this college where there are so many amazing possible experi- ences that people could be having,” Marson said. “To focus on weight and shape as a primary focus seems like … a missed opportunity.”

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