If this year’s Oscars known as the "women's superbowl" only attracted half (39.3 million to be exact) the viewing audience of that great male gladiator event, that’s still way more than enough people to make an enormous impact on the body ideals and aspirations of girls and women who buy the fashion lines and accessories and makeover surgeries (AKA “aesthetic medicine”) such as the silicone implants and butt lifts that inspire fans to become clones of their favorite hot movie star.
This process of body commodification and celebrity body branding was back in force on Oscar night beginning with the red carpet pre-award ritual. The camera zoomed in on Gwyneth Paltrow and Rooney Mara’s legs, hips, breasts, and arms, literally dis-embodying them as they dutifully modeled their designer gowns. In their pro forma greeting interview they announce “who” they are wearing-- as if their entire identity at that moment is bound up in the clothing and accessories they display in the most televised annual enactment of “lookism”- our cultural dedication to perfecting the body’s appearance which drives our super-narrow ideals of femininity.
Tween and teen girls - the most lucrative market (over $150 million a year) for Hollywood movies and spin-off movie star branded products like make-up, clothes, jewelry, dolls, and phones - are especially vulnerable to believing that their identity comes from the outer surface of their body. Teen pics teach girls “I am my brand, my size (preferably a “zero”) my shape, my number on the scale” and the resulting obsession with dieting and over-exercising.
So there was J. Lo. on the red carpet modeling her gown as she reminded the interviewer not only of her humble Bronx beginnings but of her spin-off fashion and perfume lines that have allowed her entry to a consumer paradise where she can wear “the best.” And it was telling that once the awards got underway, not only were women directors and writers conspicuously absent in the nominated films even in the prepared clips there were precious few actresses interviewed except, ironically, Gabourey Sidibe who noted as a woman of color how few images appeared on Hollywood’s screens she could identify with.
The women who work as professional actors were once again reduced to a display of their branded bodies. As blogs and sites excoriated and glorified Emma Stone’s red bow or Viola Davis’ green gown, the twittersphere lit up with the big reveal moments of J Lo’s “nip slip” (@JLosNipple) and Angelina Jolie’s right leg (@AngelinasRight Leg.) She may be a supermom and director but she is reduced to a scarily bone-thin leg and thigh suddenly emerging from her enveloping black gown, not to mention the “thinspiration” such an image provides to girls all over the world who in their quest for the super slender body follow her diet regimens like a gospel for our times.
So why gripe? After all it’s just a guilty pleasure where at worst where we can suspend our critical judgement once a year and enjoy the snacks and the ads--just like the Superbowl. But beyond the sheer visual pleasure of the glamour and the glitz and the months-long Oscar buzz about winners and losers- for the millions of women and girls across the world watching the impact of the event can be downright damaging. The display of movie star bodies at the Oscars is not just an apotheosis to the objectification of women’s bodies but it helps perpetuate a consumer beauty culture that promotes an image of body perfection and the ever-growing market for the products and procedures to achieve that perfection. It has given rise to an “eating disordered culture” marked by chronic body anxiety and dissatisfaction that now reaches far beyond Hollywood to high school girls in Tanzania and burkha-wearing housewives in Saudi Arabia. And let's remember it's not just women who are affected—it’s the men and boys who watch and are being taught that on Oscar night- just like all other nights- guys get the Awards and women get to be the body brands.
Emily Fox-Kales Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School specializing in eating disorders and also teaches film and gender studies at Northeastern University. Her new book is BODY SHOTS: HOLLYWOOD AND THE CULTURE OF EATING DISORDERS.