For women of a certain age, the slogan, “You’ve come a long way baby,” will light up memories of a certain ad for a certain cigarette. In 1968, capitalizing on the feminist movement, a brand of smokes was introduced with an ad campaign intentionally targeted towards women. Never mind that the slogan used a demeaning term for women or that using the product was suspected to shorten the very lives being recognized for having come such a long way; the ad was specifically designed to recruit new women smokers or seduce women smokers to wrap their lips around Virginia Slims.
Yes, the cigarette was actually called Virginia Slims and it was a very slim and slender cigarette; dainty and frilly and oh so feminist. Take a deep breath now and inhale the irony that the Women’s Tennis Association Tour was sponsored by Virginia Slims back in the day. Ahh those were the days…days of feminist fire breathing tennis players. But lest you think this is a tale of a time long ago, in 1990 Virginia Slims introduced their Virginia Slims Super Slim 100’s! Because we all know you can’t get slim enough! Four years later, we were asked to suck on their Virginia Slims Kings…ironic really. I would think that a cigarette with such strong feminist roots would call their product Virginia Slims Queens. But perhaps that is more telling than it seems.
As I write this piece, it is fall, and no longer the 1990’s. For most of the country, this means leaves changing colors, people turning back the clocks, and fashion articles about runway shows with special magazine inserts devoted to style style style. And like the swallows to Capistrano, we are “visited” by the token plus size “fashionista” article, the outrage of underage underweight girly model stories, and pieces by writers like me opining away about the cancerous proliferation of eating disorders.
But this year, as I thumbed through the Style Magazine of the N. Y. Times, I noticed a drastic difference in the models; The MALE models. Without exception, each was exceedingly thin, dressed in clothing that hung on them like shrouds…shapeless and limp. Toothpicks of men standing next to toothpicks of women. In the wake of hurricane Irene, I couldn’t help but flash on images of trees snapped in half by the wind as I looked at these bodies barely able to stand; looking equally frail and vulnerable.
Body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, once completely associated with girls and women, are now increasing among boys and men. Because I work in the field of ED (Eating Disorders, NOT Erectile Dysfunction a totally different male affliction) I have been aware of this trend for a while via journal articles and conference sessions. What has been missing for me, however, was seeing evidence of this in my day to day life. Unfortunately, the prevalence of ED and Body Image issues among girls and women cannot be ignored. Every day is a new day filled with reminders of that cultural trend, but I hadn’t been bombarded with the male side of it until now.
A few days later, I read the article, “For Once the Guys Go First,” in which Eric Wilson writes about the male fashions during fashion week. He is excited that the men are finally getting top billing in this predominantly female-centric arena, one of the few I might add, and the article did a spectacular job of keeping up with the “Janeses” by including the mandatory accompanying photos of models looking blankly into the camera.
One photo stood out; a rail thin soldierboy startling in his apathetic and anemic pose and pout. If these are the boys being shipped overseas to fight in wars of “men” I’m afraid for their lives. Honestly, I think I could take them down in hand to hand combat. Kidding aside, my heart ached for them and I wondered why are men volunteering for a war that doesn’t need to be waged? In the past, male eating disorders were frequently triggered by photos of buff muscular men with biceps like big cigars and abs like…well…six packs. Male body image dissatisfaction was centered around not being manly enough, and not wanting to look like the 98 pound weakling on the beach. Some folks will say this is progress! Skinny men are considered beautiful now. Woo hoo! And I’m not saying that skinny men aren’t attractive but at the risk of being a Dr. Deah Downer, this is a different brand of potential body hate that will ignite a different set of disordered eating behaviors tragic and as potentially deadly as tar and nicotine.
One of the true signs that a legitimate problem exists is if there is an association devoted to the problem. I visited the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (N.A.M.E.D.) website and had an email exchange with its director Christopher Clark. Mr. Clark was very helpful and the newly updated website is filled with informative articles, resources, and statistics for anyone seeking more information or guidance. It also provided ample proof that eating disorders is no longer just a female problem and that men have succeeded in breaking through the not so enviable glass ceiling of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. Females may still be leading the pack, but the males, unfortunately, are gaining ground. This is not what the Equal Rights Movement had in mind, is it?
You’ve come a long way baby.