Last Friday, 19-year-old Demi Lovato, who quit her starring role on the Disney Channel show Sonny with a Chance to seek treatment for bulimia and self-mutilation in the spring, publicly chided Disney regarding a joke about eating disorders on the company’s Shake It Up kids show. One of the show’s characters said “I could just eat you up, well, if I ate.”
Afterwards, Lovato wrote on her Twitter account:
“What are we promoting here? #notfunnyATALL,” Lovato tweeted on Friday. “I find it really funny how a company can lose one of their actress’ from the pressures of an EATING DISORDER and yet still make [a] joke about that very disease.”
“And is it just me or are the actress’ getting THINNER AND THINNER…. I miss the days of RAVEN, and LIZZIE MCGUIRE,” she wrote in another Tweet.
Lovato then wrote, “Dear Disney Channel, EATING DISORDERS ARE NOT SOMETHING TO JOKE ABOUT.”
Disney got the message and a Disney representative later contacted Lovato and told her that the Shake It Up episode she had criticized, as well as one on the show So Random! that also joked about food issues, would be pulled. The Disney Channel’s official PR Twitter account then displayed the message that “It’s NEVER our intention to make light of eating disorders!” Lovato tweeted back her thanks, along with a few more remarks about eating disorders and body image:
“Just clearing things up, I have nothing against any specific actress/actor or TV show.. Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with girls who aren’t curvy,” she wrote in a series of tweets. “I just was stating a fact that there needs to be more variety on television so young girls growing up don’t feel pressured to look one specific way. Tall, thin, curvy, short, whatever you are, you are beautiful. :)”
A Fox News account about Lovato’s censure of Disney for the eating disorder jokes says that “experts say Lovato opened the Pandora’s Box about the dangerous effects television shows can have on the negative body image of young women.” In an interview, nutritionist Rania Batayneh points out that Disney should have known better than to include the ”I could just eat you up, well, if I ate” joke on a show that is specifically targeted at teens. As he said to Fox News:
“It is not a notable character trait to ‘not eat.’ We have seen time and time again Disney actresses who struggle with their weight who are a bit obsessed as adults with their physique or just lose control all together and let themselves go. There needs to be a focus on health and wellness and for teens.”
Due to the huge audience for its shows, not to mention the vast popularity of Disney in so many children’s lives through its theme parks, movies, stores, products, etc., Disney needs to be even more attuned to the messages it is communicating, directly and indirectly, to teens and to children. Certainly the numerous princesses and heroines that populate its movies have a distinctly hourglass figure. While the Mulans and Princess tiaras are more and more touted for their smarts, beauty and physical attractiveness are de rigueur traits. (Sure, Belle loved to read but she also had to be a beauty.)
More new research has also shown that eating disorders are biological in origin. Debate still rages about the extent to which culture plays a part in girls and women developing eating disorders, via societal norms equating beauty and slenderness with success and everything positive, as well as the glut of images on TV, the internet, magazines and everywhere of thin — often extremely thin — young women.
The Atlantic highlighted eating disorders in children as a top health story of 2012. 95 percent of the 24 million Americans who have eating disorders are 12 to 25 years old. Other research has shown that hospitalizations for eating disorders in prepubertal children younger than 12 increased 119 percent between 1999 and 2006. In the UK, out of 2000 children hospitalized for eating disorders in the past three years, 197 were between five and nine years old. Eating disorders occurring in younger and younger children are an open secret. What’s keeping us from directing more scrutiny and critique at the messages about beauty and body image that popular culture sends to young girls?
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Photo by Yana Lyandres