Very Un-Fat Girls in . . . Is it Art? Or just a disturbing brew of images?

Francesca notes this interesting, albeit somewhat disturbing, article about “thinspiration” videos at yesterday’s New York Times magazine:

You don’t have to search very hard to find the excruciating online videos known as thinspiration, or thinspo. Photomontages of skeletal women, including some celebrities and models, play all over the Internet, uploaded from the United States, Germany, Holland and elsewhere. These videos are designed to “inspire” viewers — to fortify their ambitions. But exactly which ambitions? To lose weight, presumably. To stop losing weight, possibly. Thinspo videos profess a range of ideologies, often pressing morbid images into double service, as both goads and deterrents to anorexia.

::snip::

Setting aside the mystifying proposition that anorexia be seen as a lifestyle choice (as some extremist pro-anorexia sites maintain), as well as the age-old riddle of whether popular culture can produce mental illness, what seems most significant about the thinspiration videos is that they’re not propaganda or even entertainment, but an effort, however misguided, at art. One thinspiration filmmaker whose YouTube screen name is “hungryhell,” and who spoke on condition of anonymity to keep her struggles with bulimia private from people who know her, emphasized to me in an e-mail message that her work “represents what I have been feeling at that time in particular.” She added, “The songs I use . . . say exactly what I need to but can’t figure out how.”

According to the article, “thinspo” videos come with little or no commentary, and therefore are hard to classify. Francesca agrees with the reporter that they seem to be less a form of “thin is in” propoganda and should be considered more as works of (not necessarily good) art — in the sense that they are a means of creative expression, the result of a (probably disturbed) person’s compulsion to produce something out of photos, video, and music which represents his or her inner turmoil. And like any art, it may be seen as ridiculous or meaningless or moving or disturbing or infuriating. And the more one feels an emotional reaction upon watching it, the more it is a powerful piece of art – as infuriating as it may be.

There is much in the article which we could explicate here, but Francesca will say just one, and leave the rest for you good folks to discuss in the comments:

There are so many, many ways in this world that a person can be in pain. So many ways to destroy oneself. And so much strangeness! What the internet has done is to give more people new ways to share their pain — or whatever it is — with the rest of the world. And it has given us a new window into other people’s mental goings-on. Sometimes what we see is perplexing, or puzzling, or ambiguous. This doesn’t make it new, and it doesn’t make it politically important. It’s just an interesting fact about humanity, that sometimes we produce strange and perplexing things. People were creating disturbing works long before the internet, and long before thinness became an ideal. Just, their works were stored in the attic and no one ever saw them, unless they were Sylvia Plath.

Yet Francesca is intrigued by this question, which the Times reporter has “set aside”: “the age-old riddle of whether popular culture can produce mental illness.”

Indeed, would the makers of thinspiration videos be as obsessed with thin bodies if popular culture did not value thinness so much? If there was no internet for them to post videos on? Are more people troubled because of our society’s mixed messages, or is it the same percentage of people, but they have newer and creative ways (such as anorexia) of manifesting their sickness? Francesca will leave it to you to discuss.

2 Responses to “Very Un-Fat Girls in . . . Is it Art? Or just a disturbing brew of images?”

  1. Marvel May 26, 2008 at 7:00 pm #

    Intriguing question with probably no right answer. But I think it likely that “popular culture” has always and will always promote some alternative as better or more desirable than another–whether that be thinness vs fatness, intelligence vs athleticism, goody-two-shoes morality vs rebellious individualism, think of any random (and oversimplified) dichotomy and insert here. Some percentage of people will be able to withstand the messages of popular culture, and some percentage won’t. So I guess I’m arguing that popular culture won’t “cause” mental illness, but it may define the form that some mental illnesses take.

    Which then opens the question of what defines a mental illness. Some are easy to define (anorexia, paranoid schizophrenia), but many appear to be an extreme form of normal human behavior. Severe depression can look a lot like a prolonged and deep, but natural, grief reaction. What is called an “illness” and what is just variation is not always easily defined–I once read an article in the late 1990’s that stated that 20% of Caucausian boys in the 5th grade in a given school district were on medicine for ADHD. Some probably had a true illness characterized by attention deficits, but some were probably normal active boys that didn’t conform to the parent/teacher expectations of behavior in a confined classroom setting. (When you call _20%_ of an otherwise normal population mentally ill, the definition is probably unnecessarily broad.) So if you’re asking if society or “popular culture” can define some set of human behaviors as mental illness, then, yeah.

    My personal opinion–most true mental illness is probably primarily genetically determined, modulated by in utero and early childhood environments. Popular culture cannot “cause” mental illness in a person, but may determine the form a mental illness takes.

  2. jenny May 27, 2008 at 5:06 am #

    I pretty much agree with Marvel.
    I would like to add that I think that in terms of eating most people have had a point in their life when their eating habits and attitudes were (psychologically) unhealthy, whether overeating or restricting their food intake or whatever. I think one of the problems with having these kind of messages floating around is that they seem to justify this kind of behavior as an acceptable coping mechanism. Which can turn what was a transient phase, in reaction to a particular circumstance, into a longer running problem.

    So maybe to an extent they do promote mental illness.