This article contains descriptions of disordered eating behaviors which could be triggers for people with eating disorders.
Every few years, going on for decades, an actor or actress will purposefully lose or gain a significant amount of weight for a role. They gain notoriety for the weight changes in most cases, with glowing reviews lauding their “dedication to the role,” and generating more Oscar buzz. It’s happened so often, for certain roles, it’s almost a requirement; some actors have made it a central part of their role preparation.
However, the celebration of extreme weight loss or gain by celebrities can set an extremely dangerous example.
Body Image and Eating Disorders
One of the most common contributing factors to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or bulimia nervosa is a poor body image. Specifically, people with these disorders almost always think they are fat, even when they are severely underweight. This flawed self-perception then leads them to engage in disordered eating behaviors such as calorie restriction, binging and purging, or in the case of BED, dieting punctuated by binge eating episodes.
One of the many factors in a distorted body image is the message various forms of media send about beauty and attractiveness. Whereas social media is a relatively new way for celebrities to reach audiences, and it has created a new kind of “fitness” and “beauty” celebrity, many of the beauty standards found on Instagram and Twitter already existed in Hollywood films, TV, and print. So while a movie doesn’t offer the kind of peer-to-peer bullying or influence that social media does, it can still set a standard for what an “attractive” body should look like.
This impossible standard is normally, for women, slim and thin. For men, lean and muscular is the norm.
These kinds of bodies may be considered beautiful or sexy, but create an ideal that completely contradicts one of the central facets of eating disorder recovery: Healthy At Every Size (HAES). HAES teaches people to accept their body size and their weight, prioritizing nutritional balance, and health over trying to attain a certain kind of body. In some cases of an eating disorder, such as severe anorexia nervosa, the desire to avoid weight gain is so extreme that the individual will consume as few as 100 calories a day, becoming emaciated to the point their body will cease to function. HAES therapy is vital to recovery in cases like this, and rehabilitating body image is central to that.
Sudden Weight Changes Are No Joke
By presenting the sudden changes in weight some actors undergo for a role as something to be celebrated, it pushes the idea that extreme weight fluctuation and disordered eating behaviors are something to be emulated. However, extreme weight changes can have serious and long-lasting complications, as we’ll see in a few case examples below. Furthermore, for people who already have an eating disorder or those on the cusp of developing one, these messages might justify their eating disorder behaviors and exacerbate them.
Frighteningly, some of these actors, however talented, are considered among the most “beautiful” and “attractive” players in Hollywood, despite the risks to their heath they’ve engendered. Here are some examples of actors and actresses who’ve gained and lost weight for roles – and the negative consequences they experienced afterward.
- Tom Hanks
For his role in Castaway, Hanks first gained 40 pounds, then stopped production for a few weeks to lose over 70 pounds, portraying a man who was lost on a desert island for several years. He binge-ate fatty foods like ice cream to gain the weight, then transferred to a strict diet to lose it again. A few years later, Hanks received a type-2 diabetes diagnosis. He claims that the yo-yo dieting for this role was the final straw for diabetes.
- Anne Hathaway
For her role as the tuberculosis-addled young woman Fantine in Les Miserables, Hathaway lost 25 pounds from an already-slim frame. For several weeks she ate nothing but oatmeal cakes to reach the emaciated state. She later comes out as regretting the choice, as it affected her health for months to come. She had trouble concentrating and experienced extreme fatigue for months following the experience.
- Mila Kunis
The Russian-born star of TV and film engaged in both calorie restriction and extreme exercise to prepare for her role as a ballet dancer in 2010’s Black Swan. At her lowest point, she was 95 pounds and struggling to avoid losing more weight. It was difficult for her to return to her usual body weight as well after the filming was completed. “My shape is different. When I got down to 95 pounds, I was muscles, but skin and bones.”
- Christian Bale
Bale has consistently gained and lost considerable amounts of weight for his various roles. For 2004’s The Machinist, Bale famously went on a crash diet to lose 60 pounds for his role as a troubled insomniac. Asked afterward about it, he said he was no longer to concentrate or even climb stairs. He later gained 45 pounds to play Dick Cheney in Vice. The experience left him exhausted. “Everything hurts now,” he was quoted. The actor has since indicated he would no longer engage in weight loss or gain for his upcoming roles.
- Jared Leto
In Dallas Buyers Club, the veteran film actor got down to 114 pounds, playing and AIDS/HIV patient in the late 70’s. The weight loss had a significant effect on his mental health as well as causing physical weakness and fatigue. “[I] stopped eating,” he told The Wrap. “It changes the way you walk, the way you sit, the way you think.”
- Charlize Theron
The South African star of Max Max: Fury Road and her Oscar-winning role in Monster attempted to gain significant weight for her role in Tully, to negative effect. Gaining almost 50 pounds for the role, the then-43-year-old suffered mental health and physical illnesses due to the increased weight. It took her almost a year and a half to lose the weight, and she has been very open about the depression caused by her weight gain and altered body image.
Even in an industry as obsessed with weight and body shape as the film industry, these are extreme cases. However, most of these actors and actresses were rewarded in some way for radically changing their body size; several received Oscar nominations and all were lauded for their dedication to the roles. Using their platforms to lionize irresponsible messaging to impressionable fans is more than problematic – it’s potentially harmful. Thankfully, Hollywood isn’t completely ignorant of HAES.
A Few Films That Celebrate Body Positivity
There are some films made in the past few decades that center around positive self-image, self-acceptance, and Health At Every Size. Interestingly, these are mostly aimed at female audiences; while men experience eating disorders at a lower rate than women, awareness of body dysmorphia in men is less common. Despite this disparity, the message of these body-positive movies can apply to people of all genders.
- Real Women Have Curves
This 2002 drama starring America Ferrera revolves around the life of a young woman working with her mother at a dress factory. She is shamed by her mother for being overweight, partly because the mother is also overweight and is projecting her own self-esteem issues onto her daughter. The young woman, Ana, eventually learns to accept and love her curves and see herself as beautiful. Ana’s journey is an important reminder of the truth of HAES.
- The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Also starring America Ferrera, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsis a 2005 film exploring the intersectionality of female friendships, body image, and ethnicity. A group of four friends comes across a magical pair of pants that fits them each perfectly, bring them closer together and teaching them that a person can be beautiful no matter their size and shape. Fererra’s Latinx character also deals with cultural insensitivity in the form of her stepmother, who claims certain dresses are wrong for her because of her Puerto Rican background.
- Patti Cake$
This 2017 indie might be passed off as a “female version of 8 Mile,” but it deals with additional complications in its hero’s life of being overweight and a woman in a “man’s world.” Patti is a young woman in a run-down New Jersey neighborhood who aspires to be a rapper. As she furthers her career in music, Patti faces discrimination from people who fat-shame her, and replies by maintaining her confidence and trusting in herself.
Enjoy the Movies – But Don’t Let Them Tell You How to Feel About Yourself
It’s natural to see the beautiful people in the movies and TV – or even the ones you see on social media – and want to emulate them. However, as the Sisterhood might note, beauty comes in multiple forms. The ideal presented by the media creates a body type that’s unattainable for most people, and without awareness that these images are manipulative (not to mention manipulated via Photoshop, etc.), they can trigger people into taking unhealthy steps to lose weight or over-exercise.