Polly from HBO Documentary “Thin” has committed suicide

I never saw the HBO documentary “Thin“, but apparently it featured women who were struggling with eating disorders. The log line of the show was: “If it takes dying to get there, so be it.”

One of the women featured in the documentary, Polly, recently took her own life.

“Dieting has always been a huge part of my life. I remember all the things that are signs of eating disorders being taught by my family; cut my food into really small pieces, and chew very slowly and take your time, and drink water in between so your stomach fills up faster. I was counting calories and fat by the time I was 11.”

Am I the only person reading this and thinking, “But all this is true of me, too, and I never had an eating disorder”? Or is it just that she was from Tennessee and I grew up there, and it’s a culture which really believes everybody who’s not a white Protestant man exists at the whims of white Protestant men and must do something to prove how much more they value said men than they value their own lives?

Unlike Los Angeles, which knows the media is bullshit* where ordinary people have ample opportunity to realize everything the media tells you is bullshit and women, despite everything, have been allowed to wield at least some overt power for decades**. I mean, you only have to run into two celebrities at grocery stores before it sinks in: ah, this is all a big joke. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t know or doesn’t care that people in other regions take their warped messages really, really seriously.

*Striken words replaced for clarification.

**Italicized words added for clarification.


  1. Deborah Smith says

    Wow. This native southerner has kin in Hollywood, and one look at the skinny, self-starving women there ought to dispel anyone’s notion that they laugh off the cultural pressure to be thin. You think dumb-hick southern women agonize more over pleasing their macho men than the man-obsessed women in other regions of the country? Comeon. Really? Please, leave the South bashing to ignorant Yankees.

  2. says

    Upon reflection, I’m deleting my original comment here and replacing it with this one:

    First off, if you think I’m bashing the South (actually, I was criticizing TN), I should mention that TN bashed me for 13 years because I wouldn’t get in line. Now to examine your response.

    Please, leave the South bashing to ignorant Yankees.

    That would be safe, wouldn’t it? Only taking criticism from ignorant people who are therefore easily dismissed. I lived in TN for 13 years, so I actually know what I’m talking about when I criticize TN. Just like I know what I’m talking about when I criticize Hollywood.

    But now here we have a REAL exhibition of Southern “class”: “Yankee.” Funny, that’s what I was called the first day of school when I moved to TN. I was called it many times thereafter because that’s how y’all deal with everyone: apply label, use as insult. The latest I hear is that Southerners are calling black people “Canadians” in place of the N-word. Holy shit, these people need to look inward to solve their problems instead of blaming them on everyone they can segregate into a “not me” category.

    You think dumb-hick southern women agonize more over pleasing their macho men than the man-obsessed women in other regions of the country?

    You know, this is not at all what I said, but I find it very interesting you leaped to the assumption I was putting down Southern women. Southern women are tough. Black women are much tougher than white women because they have to take even more shit, but white Southern women have the unenviable job of actually running everything while letting the men (who are weak and ineffectual from lifelong coddling) think they’re doing it.

    No, what I was saying was that a girl in TN – and remember, I was one – has no female role models to look up to. No one takes her seriously when she talks about her ambitions to write, to do music, to become a Senator. Aside from a handful of teachers and authority figures – who are sneered at by the majority – everyone thinks it’s cute or annoying that the little girl thinks she can do those things. But she’ll grow out of it and realize she just wants to get married and make babies!

    The one ambition that WAS taken seriously was modeling. Oh dear God, the Barbizon School (ha!) of Modeling ads that ran all the time. The beauty pageants. OMG, if she could just get famous for being beautiful, all her problems would be solved! So, how do we get beautiful? We read magazines and watch E! and learn the diet tips of the stars!

    And then it permeates the culture so that even those girls who don’t care about that stuff think it’s just normal dieting.

    But hey – you tell me why a souther woman wrote about Scarlett O’Hara being so proud of a ridiculously tiny 17 inch waist. As far as I’m concerned, the Southern girls I knew who starved themselves or grew up with moms and sisters who starved them “for your own good, so you’ll never be fat like I was OMG IT WAS THE END OF THE WORLD” were actually smart people. They just didn’t see they had any options because as far as TN was concerned, they didn’t.

    The Hollywood culture is as dysfunctional as the South – it’s just a predator culture whereas the South is prey. Or did you think all our starving wannabes are home grown out here?

    One last thing, Deborah. I should have removed your comment for calling “Yankees” ignorant. If you can’t tell the difference between critiquing a misogynistic culture and broadly insulting everyone born in (or outside of) a certain region, then further comments from you will not be posted. I’ve given people hell for bashing religion and churches, too – this is no better, and it’s not acceptable.

  3. Gategrrl says

    I really AM a Yankee, by the true definition: I’m from Massachusetts, originally, born and raised.

    I’ve got family in the South, also.

    But I think it’s hysterical how the lingering hatred from the War Between the States (otherwise known as the War of Northern Aggression to some folks South of the Mason Dixon line) still pops up.

    It’s interesting you’ve also characterized Southern women as being “dumb-hicks”. That’s how you think the rest of the country sees Southerners? That’s sad. The Southern women I’ve met and known are anything but.

  4. Jess says

    I can’t really comment on the culture of LA or TN, as I haven’t spent extensive time in either place. But it seems a little too neat that they can just be put into separate categories like that.

    I read rather extensively and you used to see the “waist so small he could put his hands around it” bit in a lot of novels from the 70s & 80s, mostly in romance and the male dominated genres, regardless of the author’s place of origin.

    I get that BetaCandy was trying to make a point about Southern culture and a woman’s place in it, but I’m skeptical of the idea that everyone or even most of the people in LA are in on the “joke.”

  5. says

    I can understand your skepticism, Jess – it surprised me to move here and discover that people got that celebrity wasn’t something to be worshiped. But the people I’ve known don’t take it very seriously. Everybody has known a celeb at some point, or knows multiple people who work with celebs, so we hear stuff that doesn’t make the tabloids. That the latest hot couple really isn’t dating at all and it’s all a publicity stunt; that someone’s on drugs; that someone’s gay and has a boyfriend and his marriage is a careful PR arrangement, etc. That gives you a clue that all is not as it seems.

    People to whom Hollywood seems as foreign as another country don’t have that advantage to help them separate fact from fiction. They only hear what gets reported – which is 99% carefully sculpted PR, including the scandals, the weird rumors about sex kinks, etc.

    For one clear relevant example of how women are being lied to, I can’t tell you how many places I’ve read or heard TV people say, “Well, these actresses who stay so slim, they just work out for hours a day and eat very healthy, and that’s what you’ve got to do, ladies, if you want to look like that.” Sounds reasonable, except it’s bullshit – a working actress doesn’t HAVE hours a day to work out. Rather than eat healthy, they just undereat, then do a few bicep curls to create the illusion of “toned muscles”, and that’s it. That’s the only way to really maintain a slenderness which is unnatural for your particular body.

  6. says

    I just want to second BetaCandy’s observation re: SoCal.

    It certainly isn’t universal, but (based on my limited experience of living in MA and OR) people here* generally do tend to be at least slightly more blase about celebrities. It’s not so much that we are in on the “joke,” or that everyone else thinks that Hollywood is 100% real, it’s more that we have a deeper understanding that who you see on TV often isn’t reality.

    And it’s for the reasons that BetaCandy gives: we’re just more likely to be connected to Hollywood in some way, however loosely. It may be that our brother’s college roommate interned for a certain Oscar winning director and learned that said director has a fairly extensive porn collection, mostly featuring Asian women. Or it could be that “Rory” stopped by the bookstore where we work (alas, not while I was there), and we got to hear how snooty she was. Or it maybe something as simple as being able to checkoutNext at the library that’s within feet of where they filmed a certain scene, or knowing that the go-cart episode of CSI was partly filmed at the 3rd rate amusement park where you worked one summer.

    Seriously, I could spend all day thinking of connections like this, and I’m pretty anti-social in real life, so normal people who actually go out to parties have got to have tons more.

    We do (sometimes) still get excited when we hear that so-and-so is in town or a movie will be filming nearby. We still lust after certain actors and (sometimes) convince ourselves that our crushes are just like they are in those interviews. But…there’s definitely less of a sense that these people are disconnected from us, and more of a sense that the image that is presented in the media is disconnected from them.

    *I would also add NY city and certain parts of CO to that list.

  7. Jess says

    Thanks, BetaCandy and Mickle for the the clarification. Until you explained, I thought that you were making some broad generalizations.

  8. says

    oops – that was supposed to be CT – although I suppose one ought to include Vale as well. :)

    Jess – yeah, that’s the danger with describing trends; they can sometimes come across as absolutes no matter how careful you try to word it.

  9. scarlett says

    Yeah, Mickle’s explaination clarified things for me, too, up til then Beta’s initial comments sounded a little broad, even condecending.

  10. says

    I’m not confident there’s anyway to say it nicely, but I’ve attempted to edit the last paragraph of my post for clarity.

    Hollywood culture is not better than southern culture; it’s just put itself in a position of power over cultures like the south, and it’s using the south’s bigotry to manipulate it. That said, the south is using the very same tactics to put bigoted politicians into Washington at the speed of light. Either way, women (and a lot of other people) lose.

  11. scarlett says

    It makes more sense now; it was coming across a little like ‘we know better in Hollywood than anyone/where else’ before. I knew that wasn’t what you meant but that’s what I would assume someone else meant if i didn’t know them better.

  12. cub says

    so betacandy=jennifer? forgive me if i have this wrong.

    jk– when you said you grew up there , i misinterpreted your meaning. i assumed you meant that you were born there. now i understand your hatred. you remind me of my hateful mother who resented being picked on by southerners when she first moved to memphis, which is a majority-black city in the state of tennessee. it has lots of violent crime and lots of culture, too– think nyc in the 70s and you’ll get the vibe: gunshots! museum! gunshots! museum! hey–that’s where stax used to be!, etc.

    memphians have a peculiar and special sense of low self esteem because we know our history and we are integrated enough (more so than chicago, for example) to confront racism on a daily basis. understand the economic history of our nation, and understand everything– i’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, i’ll bet, but the simple fact that i was born there and you were not is a strong point of identity.

    you were ‘otherized’ and that was wrong. so was my mother, and that was wrong. and then, when i accompanied my family on a summer vacation to visit my mother’s relatives in eastern pennsylvania, i was treated in a way that let me know that some people’s feelings matter more than others.

    oh, my mother could bemoan the evil southerners, and complain that “they” just can’t stop fighting the civil war, but let me complain just once as a SEVEN YEAR OLD that that five of my pennsylvania cousins were loudly making fun of the way my little brother and i spoke, and all of a sudden “hurt feelings” didn’t matter worth a damn.

    well, i say unto you, and anyone who wants to make fun of a person for any reason, let alone a reason beyond her control, such as skin color, or region of birth, or the religion of her family of origin, perhaps it is you who can’t quit fighting the fucking civil war. all i ever wanted was unconditional love from a parent. instead i got a screaming narcissist for a mother and a string of disappointed boyfriends because my “funny accent” was beaten out of me long ago. you see, they wanted an exotic southern belle, and i did not live up to their regionalist expectations– which were also a bit racist when you get down to it.

    a scene to sum it up for the sake of absurd humor– i’m getting in line at the Wok’N’Roll in florence, al, to pick up my order, and i ask a cute, hipsterish college-aged asian guy if he’s already ordered. he says, “yeah, go ahead– hey, you’re not from around here, are you– it’s your accent.”

  13. says

    Cub, see the comment above where I clarified. I wasn’t indicting southern people. I was indicting a culture that promotes the Hollywood ideals of 90 pound women within itself, for real.

    California is a flaming hotbed of bigotry, too, as is all of the US, but you know what? I have never been mistreated over my weight in L.A. like I was regularly in Tennessee. That’s because in Hollywood, they have the advantage of realizing what a farce it all is. Perhaps the very fact that they create the myth makes it all the more clear to them that real women don’t look like starlets, and that’s okay.

    Tennessee seemed to have thoroughly internalized the idea that a woman with an ounce of fat deserved mistreatment from men.

  14. cub says

    ayayay! did you ever stop and think it was maybe luck of the draw, or bad individuals, or bad timing, instead of leaping to a bigoted conclusion about an entire region or state? did you know any people outside your own ethnicity?
    you did not live in the entire state of TN. where were you nashville, knoxville, chattanooga? you lived in one place for crying out loud– it’ like saying california can kiss it because all one knows is L.A.– as if S.F. were no different, which is absurd and bigoted.

  15. Dax says

    California is a flaming hotbed of bigotry, too, as is all of the US, but you know what? I have never been mistreated over my weight in L.A. like I was regularly in Tennessee. That’s because in Hollywood, they have the advantage of realizing what a farce it all is. Perhaps the very fact that they create the myth makes it all the more clear to them that real women don’t look like starlets, and that’s okay.

    You’re kinda contradicting yourself, there.

    In another post, you claimed that L.A. has the highest percentage of men who turn their noses up at women who don’t fit the Hollywood standard of beauty. So, which is it? An all-accepting wonderland or a shallow shithole?

    Just wondering.

  16. says

    Dax, despite the high percentage of men in L.A. who think they’re entitled to women who look like starlets, the population of L.A. is about the same size as the entire state of TN. In an area about the size of the Nashville metro area. Therefore that slim percentage of accepting men equates to a fair number of men, and it’s not so hard to run into them.

    However, you were mistaken to assume the people who mistreated me about my weight in TN were all men. The majority of them were women and girls.

  17. says

    Hi, I didn’t read all the comments or geographical debate; just the posting and wanted to return to that to offer my own insights.

    I’m from Massachusetts and was bulimic for 17 years; I’ve been completely recovered for five and spend a lot of time counseling women online and informally through church.

    Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are my thoughts on Polly. I watched “Thin” a month or so ago for research purposes (I’ve written a book on biblically-based restoration from EDs), and reviewed the film here: http://redeemedfromthepit.blogspot.com/2009/09/review-of-hbo-documentary-thin.html

    One thing that struck me about all four patients featured, and Polly in particular, was the obvious fact that none of them really desired to leave the eating disordered mindset (or behavior) behind. Simply put, they didn’t want to get better. Polly, in particular, struck me as extremely immature emotionally (typical of ED sufferers) and bent on attention-grabbing. She and Shelly were classic rehab-hoppers – go in to look like they were doing something responsible; maybe get some relatives off their backs; and “play” the staff until their insurance ran out.

    Polly deliberately defied rules and lied to staff EVERY chance she got. Several times while viewing her antics, I thought, “Why are you there??? Like her, I remember being told those same “slimness tips” you quoted above (I was a chubby child in the 1970’s; even here in New England image-conscious mothers said those things); but she seemed too ready to place the blame for her behavior outside herself. Never once did she show any indication of personal responsibility, let alone any true desire to turn around. I felt so sorry for her I was actually a bit depressed after watching the film.

    Shelly was pretty much the same – you just knew, instinctively, these women were never going to turn around unless a major shift in their thinking occurred. The staff were compassionate and caring, but you cannot make another person change who doesn’t want to. I am so deeply sorry that this bright young woman met this tragic, despairing end.

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