Super Skinny Me

It’s good to find out I’m not the only woman who can go on a diet well below 1,000 calories a day and fail to lose a pound.

Yes, on a purely selfish note, that’s what I got out of the documentary “Super Skinny Me“, which aired on BBCAmerica (not for the first time, and probably not for the last). The rest of the documentary didn’t surprise me because I already knew all of this, but it should be required watching for – well, every human being who’s never had serious difficulty getting enough food to eat.

Two female journalists embark on a journey to get to size zero in five weeks. That’s what, say, an actress with an event coming up would do. Between the two of them, they follow various actress’ secret diets, such as:

  • The Lemonade diet. You mix lemons with maple syrup, cayenne pepper and spring water, and that’s all you eat. It’s about 250 calories a day. Unable to function at her job on this amount of food, Kate adds ten nuts and ten raisins to her daily diet, bringing her calorie total to 500. She can sort of concentrate on her work now. Does not lose any weight that week. (The lemonade only diet is recommended for 10 to 40 days.)
  • The watercress soup diet. Ugh – it’s olive oil, watercress and a couple of other nothing ingredients. Louise actually gets ill on this diet.
  • The protein shake diet. Louise gets three protein shakes a day, plus some meat – 800 calories a day. Working out two hours every day, she begins to lose weight.
  • One trainer who works with some high profile models says that models live on a diet of “diet Pepsi and fags.” So Patsy Stone isn’t as much of an exaggeration as I’d prefer to think – jeez, at least Patsy gets some sugar from some of her alcohol.

Louise actually gets down to a very tight size double zero. Kate gets pulled out of the experiment by a psychiatrist before it’s over.

Read that again. She gets pulled out by a psychiatrist.

Being malnourished makes you dull-witted, listless, boring, weak and depressed. Or in Kate’s case, somewhat manic. Kate begins to kind of like the starving – she finds it “weirdly energizing” and notes that it saves a lot of bother not having to think about food. On the other hand, she’s going mad and she knows it. Every time she gets on the scales and hasn’t lost any weight, she just deflates. All she can think about is getting thinner. By the way, she’s never dieted before. Thought she was “a tad porky” but had never felt bothered about it before doing this diet for research purposes.

Louise finds it a chore to blow dry her hair – her muscles are that fatigued. Kate has fainting spells. Both women’s social lives go to hell because they can’t think and have nothing to talk about but the diet efforts. They’re always cold. Kate feels guilty for eating what little she does eat. The more weight Kate loses, the fatter she feels. Again: she didn’t feel fat before she started dieting.

Kate interviews a 15-year-old girl at a clinic for people with eating disorders. The young girl admits that maybe Nicole Richie looks too thin, but she feels like it’s “unfair” that she (the girl) has to gain weight while Richie is allowed to stay that thin because she’s famous. And what part of that doesn’t make sense? It’s perfectly logical. Imagine if someone told you it’s okay for Richie to try to increase her income because she’s famous, but you mustn’t aspire to that – you need to become poorer than you are. You need to give up this great advantage (skinniness) that Richie has because you’re not special like her. WTF, people? Why is there any question as to whether the media’s obsession with literally belittling women is harmful to young women?

In the end, when Kate’s started binging but not yet purging (though she has “played around with laxatives”), the doctor overseeing the experiment sends her to a psychiatrist specializing in weight issues. He susses out that she was a chubby girl in a mostly male boarding school as a child. While she apparently muddled through that situation without developing an eating disorder, the diet has triggered all the feelings she stored from that period in her life, hence the bulimic behavior. But being pulled out of the project isn’t enough: she’s in the grips of the obsession, where the mind is obsessed with starving and the body is obsessed with eating.

And at her thinnest point, that’s where Kate’s friends think she looks fantastic. They say she shouldn’t go any lower (she wants to lose another 8 kilos), but if Kate thinks at all like I do (and I’m beginning to think I have eating disorder psychology even though I have never been underweight in my life), she probably thinks they’re only being kind. After all, when Kate says she’s not skinny – that one of the other women at the gathering is skinny – the woman mentioned says, “No, I’m not! I’m fat!” Good lord.

In the end, one of the doctors involved remarks that this project provided useful research in showing that the malnourishment triggered bulimic psychology, and not the other way around, as has been presumed. Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. You needed a study to figure that not feeding your brain makes your brain not work right? I mean, I’m sure it could happen either way – damaged psychology triggering the obsession with body size – but why do researchers assume girls and women must be mentally disturbed first in order to want to become the only thing that seems to get women anything verging on respect? How can you not see that we’ve created a world in which it is a totally rational response for a young woman to channel all her ambition and desire for a better life into gaining the one trait that separates the rich, famous women from the rest of us slobs?

Kate’s article – which I linked above, and highly recommend reading (or at least looking at the before and after photos – I swear, she looks great in the before picture) – contains one insight in particular that highlights the futility of thinking that thin will solve your problems: “Not to worry that meeting men is harder without a drink in your hand, because if I keep this up I’ll be a trophy-wife weight, I’ll be the sort of thin that a certain type of man likes to buy into as he would a flash car. And with the obsessive shopping and debilitated mental capacities for intellectual combat, I’ll fit the brief perfectly.” It’s not just men, though: it’s everything. With your brain dulled from malnutrition, you’re malleable. Do you think super skinny actresses are able to think critically about their career choices, the scripts they’re given? Do you think they’re able to bring as much life to their roles as are actresses who are at their healthy weight (which in rare cases may be a size zero, but usually isn’t) or male actors, who are always allowed to be at a normal weight (and often above, if they’re at all successful)? No, they become the ultimate stick figure for the male artist to use in realizing his vision, which does not include women who think or speak or live except as he imagines.

After watching the documentary, I ordered in pizza.


  1. scarlett says

    Mmm, pizza – there’s a great place down the street from me which has been there for years and I only justbothered going to :p

    I don’t know what else to add to your article. I’m reminded of an early episode of Angel – the first, I think – where Cordelia is trying to physc herself up and then says to herself ‘I’m so hungry’. I mean, Charisma Carpenter is gorgeous, a woman who looks like her feels so driven to meet a beauty standard that she’s always hungry?

    I don’t blame the women so much as the society (patriarchal) for setting the standard. And I think you’ve got a point that when you get women who are constantly sick and tired from lack of proper nourishment that they don’t make the best career choices.

  2. Robin says

    I saw parts of this documentary — my roommate was watching while I was making dinner — and there were points where I just had to leave the room. It was that upsetting to me. Seeing Kate descend into the behavior she had set out to criticize was just horrifying. When she started in with the laxatives and colonic treatments and the binge eating… ugh. It was disturbing to see her drink the proverbial kool-aid like that.

    And poor Louise was so miserable, but she persevered for the sake of her story and her job despite the awful physical ramifications. In a weird way, I was glad that the insane dieting was a bad experience for her, because at least she knew it was harmful and didn’t continue past the requirements of her article.

    Oh, but scarlett, the moment in the Angel pilot you referred to? Cordelia wasn’t starving herself to be pretty. She didn’t have any money to buy food. Toward the end of the third season on Buffy, Cordy’s parents were arrested for tax evasion and most of their assets were seized. Consequently, she didn’t have the money to attend college and moved to L.A. in the hopes of making her way as an actress. Viewers can certainly find subtext about the entertainment and beauty industries in a lot of the situations depicted on Angel. In this instance, though, it’s mostly just about Cordy’s new and unwelcome financial woes.

  3. sbg says

    Wow. I don’t know what to say about all of that. It’s disturbing on so many levels, not the least of which why on Earth anyone thought this a good idea.

  4. says

    Holy crap. That’s the scariest thing I’ve read in a while.

    (oh, and she DID look great before dieting…women who look like that should never feel the need to diet)

  5. sbg says

    Robin said:

    Seeing Kate descend into the behavior she had set out to criticize was just horrifying. When she started in with the laxatives and colonic treatments and the binge eating… ugh. It was disturbing to see her drink the proverbial kool-aid like that.

    I didn’t even like reading about it, so I can’t imagine watching it. It’s alarming how quickly it happened – and goes a long way in showing how eating disorders are much, much more complex than most people think. A person can’t “just start eating!” once their brain chemistry’s so fucked up they can’t think straight.

    I never quite got to full blown ED, but I DO remember the strange euphoria I got when I was in college, striving to get smaller and smaller through very unhealthy means. It’s intoxicating, and not easy to stop.

    Now I’ve got the opposite problem with food, because thinking back to that time scares the bejeebers out of me.

  6. Nenena says

    Wow. I had a co-worker sometime ago who went on the lemonade diet for a week, but it was part of his Buddhist religious vows and he specifically labeled it as “fasting.” I thought that it was purely a religious thing. I had no idea that people would actually do that in order to lose weight. I mean, as my co-worker explained it to me, the idea was to starve himself until he experienced a state of raised conciousness. That sounds like a good way to aim for a spiritual experience, but a really really unhealthy way to get skinny!

  7. says

    Scarlett, exactly – it becomes a cycle.

    Jay – yep. It really is, and what’s almost scarier? Is that it’s not that far outside my experience, or that of nearly every woman I know. Even if you don’t do this stuff, you live with the reality that people have a right to judge you for not being slim if you don’t. I’ve had women say to me, “Oh, I’m fat because I’m lazy. I’d be skinny if I would just exercise 4 hours a day and eat one small meal.” And they really feel it’s expected of them to center their entire lives around working out and not eating, and they’re being unreasonable to think maybe other things are more important in life.

    Robin and SBG, it really was frightening watching Kate’s psychology change. She went into it with precisely the right attitude – just like I would have – and then she reacted just as I would have to each setback, each accomplishment… and I came away thinking, “OMG, I’d go exactly where she went if I ever tried that.” Hence the pizza order. 😉 I mean, for the first time in my life I was grateful that I’ve never managed to starve myself for more than three days before I gave up because I’d lost no weight. Maybe – and it’s weird even to think this – I’m even grateful I didn’t lose any weight, because if I had, I probably would’ve continued.

    Nenena, I agree. I imagine fasting for religious purposes would be entirely different for your psychology. For one thing, the desire for the religious experience isn’t driven by shame. It’s not like everywhere you look, there are people who’ve had that religious experience, and are able to have it easily all the time, and you haven’t. You know you’re trying to do something extraordinary, whereas with getting to size zero, you feel it’s the minimum requirement for you.

  8. scarlett says

    Robin – I remember that now. Angel doesn’t impress me that much so I filter a lot out, but i do remember the Chases becoming poor overnight in Buffy.

    It worries me sometimes because I’ve put on weight due to a bad lifestyle. It really is a bad lifestyle – big bowls of pasta and a sixpack right before I went to bed, several times a week. At any rate, I’m trying to watch what I eat (cut down on the booze and takeaway, eat more green veges) and do at least 4h of cardio a week. I think this are realistic goals but it worries me that I’ll step it up to ‘no lunch and 10 hours’ and on like that. It worries me that I might stop thinking rationally about losing weight for health reasons and starting thinking irrationally about losing weight to be as skinny as my Kate-Moss-would-be-envious sister.

  9. says

    For me, when I forget to eat (or, on some occasions, can’t afford to eat), I find I have an emotional breakdown that I can’t deal with. I become convinced of my worthlessness, cry a lot, and hate myself more than any other time. I feel completely unable to deal with the day to day stress, let alone anything more difficult.

    I could *not* deal with Hollywood levels of stress if I wasn’t eating, and when I’m convinced of my worthlessness, it always focuses on my appearance.

  10. SunlessNick says

    It certainly adds another dimension to the “neurotic Hollywood actress” or even the general “neurotic female celebrity.”

  11. mrs.g. says

    BetaCandy, like you said, what puts the scary in that article for me is that I see that is pretty close to how I would react, and I had never before considered myself one of those people who’d be likely to pick up an eating disorder.
    I think women are trained to view their natural bodies as “the enemy,” that the way we are built naturally is just keeping us from “acheiving our ideal weight and body.”
    Case in point: My older sister and I have two completely different body types; no two ways around it. She is tall and thin, and I am short, and will most likely always carry a little extra weight around. But my sister was also always “motivated” and “disciplined,” whereas I was generally not. (With my sister’s example to go on, “motivated” and “disciplined” meant to me, “someone who gives 200% to everything, and is always, always perfect at it,” and I tended to fail to notice that she also had near-mental breakdowns every single semester.) Still, I associated my sister’s body type with her “discipline,” and my own body type with my lack of it.
    I made a conscious decision as I prepared for my wedding: I was not going to add any extra diets or do anything new with my exercise regimen to make myself “bride-ready.” I remember perusing through websites, trying to learn how, in the holiest name, I was going to arrange that big ol’ party on my own, and coming across just myriad upon myriad of diet tips for brides, all to look “perfect on your perfect day.” It bothered me. And yes, I felt the pressure to join in that crase, and yeah, it kinda hurt the pride that I needed to get part of my dress let out. (Turned out I was building up muscle mass in the chest and shoulders area, something which brides are not encouraged to do.) And you know what? Everyone still told me I looked gorgeous. (Granted, what kind of awful person goes up to a bride and states, “You could’ve stood to have lost a little more weight?”)
    So, as much of a crazy tangent as some of this comment is, I just wanted to say how well I got where she was coming from, and how much that scared me. I’m really working on my body issues; I don’t want to see the way I’m built as my “enemy” anymore.

  12. sbg says

    Ditto – very interesting read. I shouldn’t even be upright now, but I couldn’t stop reading it once I started. 😉

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