Actors’ weight changes harmful to young fans

hungry-birdAt the 2008 Emmy awards, Tina Fey introduces the glowing and then-pregnant Poehler with “when are you due?” Poehler jokingly responds: “How dare you, I’ve gained weight for a role.”

Five years later, the punch line is still hard-hitting. Actors continue to gain and lose tremendous amounts of weight in a short span of time in order to play on-screen roles. But paired with the destructive stigma of eating disorders and the media’s polarized approach towards body types, can drastically changing one’s appearance still be dismissed as just “part of the job?”

Stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both had to drop around 50 pounds to play HIV positive patients for the upcoming film Dallas Buyers Club. Based off of a true story, the crime drama will be in theaters on November 1.

Leto is no stranger to extreme weight changes. In order to gain 60 pounds for a role in 2007, he force-fed himself to the point where his body couldn’t take the stress, resulting in a case of gout. You would’ve thought he learned his lesson the first time.

Unlike Jennifer Hudson, who worked with a celebrity trainer to lose weight for her recent role as Winnie Mandela in Winnie, Leto continued to resort to more dangerous means, along with his costar McConaughy. Six-foot tall McConaughy, addressing his diet to the Daily Mirror, compares his body to “a little baby bird with its mouth open, crying ‘Feed me, feed me,'” adding, “you realize momma bird ain’t going to feed you. It’s hard.”

Even so, McConaughy is passionately enthusiastic about the results.

“I’ve been trying to get [the film] made for the past four years so it’s been a labor of love and I’m really happy how it’s turned out,” McConaughey said to the Daily Mirror.

Leto too, who plays a transsexual woman, defends his weight change, telling Huffington Post: “Historically, people have done it for pursuit of self, to achieve a meditative state, so I’m hoping for that, and not the other things. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Leto’s words, though disturbing, have a point. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (a popular high-school summer reading choice) follows a man’s spiritual journey, which entails self-torture as a stepping-stone to spiritual enlightenment; however, when a celebrity is under the scrutiny of the camera, their actions have a very different weight. In the book, the premise of enlightenment and culture is consistently enforced. It’s much more difficult for the idea of fasting to be completely taken out of its specific context. For celebrities on the other hand, it’s easy for fans to only see glimpses of a thinning Leto through the frames of a paparazzi camera without seeing the movie. This is especially true for his younger, teenaged fans who can’t see the movie due to its R-rating. Not only are fourteen to sixteen year olds more susceptible to eating disorders according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, they are also more susceptible to absorbing the media’s glorification of specific body types. It’s easy to draw a misinformed conclusion when they see a celebrity going through extremities to achieve something similar. Leto may justify his extreme means of weight change for spiritual and professional reasons; however, as a celebrity, his decisions wield the dangerous potential to influence the perceptions of thousands of fans.

Besides the numerous possible misportrayals of Leto’s weight, there’s also the matter of accurately depicting an HIV-positive transsexual woman. Not only is appearance a matter of believability and performance, it’s also a matter of accurately representing the character’s struggles.

“It’s not about the most weight I can lose, it’s more to represent the character. I’m focused on what it means to be a transexual woman,” Leto said.

That being said, appearances aren’t the sole indicator of struggle. But versus the matters of accurate portrayal and artistic license, it’s hard to argue that going to physical and mental extremes to get into character is completely unjustifiable. On the other hand, it’s also hard to argue that there isn’t an indefinite amount of negative, even permanently damaging consequences. In the end, the blame can’t just be pinpointed on McConaughey or Leto or any other actor who decides to gain or lose extreme amounts of weight for a role. What’s really important is that the media needs to broadcast body positivity and self-acceptance instead of stoking labels like “curvy” or “skinny” so that young people won’t resort to other people’s bodies as a template for their own.