Oscar-Watch 2014, Using “Her” to Help You

Oscars Red Carpet
Photo credit: Creative Commons by ebbandflowphotography

The Super Bowl is over and our attention turns to the other winter pageant that has us glued to our TV screens: The Oscars.  The Academy Awards are the highlight of the awards season and are as much about the fashion and the gossip as the movies that are being promoted.

As someone who has dedicated more than 20 years to the treatment of individuals with eating disorders and body image issues, I hear about the Oscars in my practice annually. I hear about the celebrities, the fashions, and the movies. And whether I want to or not, I find myself asking the same questions to place the topical news into one of two categories: “Does this help those with eating disorders? Or, does it hurt?”

Treatment for eating disorders is complex. Commonly, affected individuals work on their nutritional plans, medical status, and thoughts and feelings with a team of clinicians. Eating behaviors are hard to change; thoughts and feelings about body shape and weight are even harder. Therapists who work with individuals with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder help patients challenge the assumptions that drive their eating behaviors, such as “I’m too fat to have a boyfriend,” or “I’ll feel better if I don’t eat till dinner time.” We are always looking for examples to help patients support their cases “against” eating disordered thoughts and feelings.

Do a celebrity’s outfit, endorsements, and associated photo-shopped images make my patients squirm with discomfort or create fresh worries and body-focused obsessions? Or does a celebrity present him or herself in such a way that encourages patients to step away from concerns about body shape and weight and towards other values?

Ellen DeGeneres and Meryl Streep help my patients, Angelina Jolie not as much. Celebrities that challenge the unrealistic pursuit of thinness, such as Lena Dunham in Girls, show that pursuit of thinness isn’t a value statement, and may be a sign of serious illness.

Here are some this year’s hot button Oscar-related issues that patients have brought to my attention:

Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Woody Allen, has spoken up about her experience of sexual abuse by her father, and has reported that she struggled with an eating disorder as she coped with her challenges.

Two of the films nominated for Best Picture include actors who changed weight significantly to play their roles. In Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey lost substantial weight to play Ron Woodroof the 1980’s AIDS-infected electrician, hustler and activist.  And Christian Bale gained significant weight in order to play the con artist Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle. These changes always have my patients asking questions about weight and body shape.

But perhaps this year’s most interesting thought-provoker is the movie Her, the Twilight Zone-like Spike Jonze movie in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely writer who falls in love with his operating system (OS). This love affair with a body-less voice has become a useful reference in my conversations with patients as I help them untangle their over-valued ideas about body shape and work on the puzzle of how to best define or imagine themselves . As portrayed in Her, love has many dimensions but itself isn’t 3-D. Remember that when you’re looking for winners on the red carpet or striving for more love within.

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Evelyn Attia, MD

I am a psychiatrist at Columbia and Weill Cornell Medical Centers and have spent the last 30+ years working to improve our understanding of eating disorders and develop effective treatments.

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