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Disease as Spectacle

We came across a posting on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Daily Dish a few weeks ago, on Allegra Versace’s battle with anorexia. Here are some excerpts from the post:


Fashion queen Donatella Versace‘s daughter Allegra is under medical care, battling a serious eating disorder.

Donatella, 52, has expressed her heartache and has admitted Allegra was being “consumed” by the illness, and pleaded with the media to “respect our pain.”

She says, “My daughter is very ill. Anorexia is consuming her and we are very worried. However, the doctors are doing all they can to snatch her away from this cruel disease and we have faith in them.

“Please think of us and respect our pain. Many mothers will know well what I am going through and what my daughter is risking.”

It’s disturbing to see this as gossip-worthy. Why is a disease a hot topic? Let’s say they found out that Allegra had breast cancer. Would they show her in her hospital bed, post-mastectomy, with a shaved head, struggling to recover? Second, Allegra’s mother runs one of the world’s top fashion companies. Will she see a connection between her daughter’s illness and the effects of the fashion industry on women’s body image? Here’s what Marcella, our eating disorders expert, had to say about it:

“I really dislike this type of coverage. There is always picture of the physically ill person so that we can look at her as some kind of circus freakshow. I am curious to see how and if this evolves. It just seems so twisted to have one of the top fashion designers’ daughters have an eating disorder. Right now, this story does not sit well for me because it is ignoring the obvious elephant in the room. I think it would be powerful if ‘Mom’ Donatella could perhaps see how toxic her line of work is for a growing girl around body image and make a statement about this and include more diversity in body shapes and sizes for her clothes and runway models.

I am glad there is more coverage on eating disorders in popular media, I just don’t like the way it is being covered, and many experts in the field hold my opinion.”

What do you think?


11 thoughts on “Disease as Spectacle

  1. re: “Would they show her in her hospital bed, post-mastectomy, with a shaved head, struggling to recover?”—Unfortunately, yes, they would.

    Celebrity sells, and whether it’s “the good, the bad or the ugly” they’re marketing people like products from triumphs to tragedy. That’s the biz, and it’s having a hellacious impact on kids, as we’ve written in this piece about celebrity fixation at Shaping Youth:
    And this piece about the trashy party girl celebutante scene and how media like this can impact kids’ health:

    Finally, just want to say we’re thrilled to hear of the About Face update/relaunch and blog spot, and will add you to our blogroll at Shaping Youth pronto! Hope you’ll do the same.

    P.S. My nomination for the tenth offender is embedded in our Shaping Youth post on user-generated billboards here:
    “Girls as Boy Toys Takes A Toxic Turn: Body Image Shaping Youth” (I didn’t wanna give ’em any branding publicity so won’t even name ’em!—Pick your bottom, pose your model, ‘play with the girls?’ EGAD!) Objectification with a capital “O.”

  2. I agree with the viewpoint that the media (in most mediums) uses these emaciated images of women obviously struggling with a health disorder to, primarily, draw an audience. It’s less about the disorder and providing information/education and far more about shock value. The media love to aggrandize anything scandalous (and they happily takes your ticket at the door and thank you for playing) Use of Allegra Donatella’s image is yet another manipulation. I can not imagine the heightened pressure she must of felt growing up surrounded by an industry with such a warped sense of what beauty really is shoved in her face at every turn. It lead to a disordre for this woman – will somebody wake up to this fact in the fashion world? Someone with influence?

    Use of her skeletal image in photos is so disrespectful.
    I am also very interested to see how her mother approaches the use of models in the fashion industry when marketing her clothing line in the future, or if she even comments publicly re: the use of thin (shapeless) models. I really hope she sees the direct link. It is there. Ultimately, it is the Donatella’s who can create immediate change and the greatest impact regarding this issue. Making a statement on behalf of all women struggling with unrealistic body image expectations and self acceptance is long overdue from a leader in the fashion industry.

    I hope she does something positive for women with a statement regarding the body image issue that has long been generated by the fashion industry. With the increased instances of anorexia in men and women and anorexia occurring in children at a younger age than ever before it’s time someone did. I hope her daughter beats this illness.

  3. I think the media does have a line and they know when they have crossed it. I mean, eating disorders are a mental disease, and in the media that is sensational (ie Dave Chappelle going to a physchiatric facility or something like that) and so are little health issues such as LiLo’s fainting and sugar issues, but other physical diseases like leukemia or cancer or something really serious they wouldn’t mess with. That is waaay beyond the line.

  4. I didn’t read the whole article, but it realy surprises me that there was no connection made between high fashion and eating disorders here. Especially given the recent publicity around what happened in Spain with the banning of too-skinny models.
    I agree that it would be powerful if Donatella made some kind of statement about fashion and body image but Im not going to hold my breath.

  5. The fashion industry is currently being used as a scapegoat. It does definitely promote a harmfull set of messages about body image. But so does the media. And so do most people in daily conversation. It serves the powerful in society if we are distracted into campaigning for changes in the fashion industry because we’ll spend lots of time and effort and achieve very little. Change has to be across the board. We need to change how we think, and speak about each other. Lets work on changing the fashion industry – but remember that none of this is their fault. And lets remember that we have a bigger battle on our hands – so don’t let off the pressure elsewhere/everywhere.

  6. RW, I would appreciate if you would explain the following quote you have made in this blog please:

    “It serves the powerful in society if we are distracted into campaigning for changes in the fashion industry because we’ll spend lots of time and effort and achieve very little.”

    Who are the powerful from your point of view? Who are you referring to? Also, how does it distract? Also, please explain how else you see change happening if not through protesting, sharing ideas through protesting and/or campaigning?

    I’m not trying to be reproachful. I’m just finding your statement ambiguous. Hopefully you’ll elaborate. Thanks.

  7. Joanne:
    I’d be very pleased to explain (genuinely pleased 🙂 ) – although some of the abiguity comes from trying to speak about very complicated issues in very few words… something I’m not too good at.
    Firstly – I didn’t mean we shouldn’t protest (etc). Quite the opposite. We should continue protesting (etc) about lots of things in relation to body image, and not be diverted into focusing just on the fashion industry.
    Secondly – I’ve learned something very profound over the last 10 years or so: when we try to make a big change happen in a human system or society – a change which means that power and influence would have to shift – we meet opposition. This is pretty obvious BUT what’s odd is that the opposition can be incredibly subtle. Even though there isn’t (probably) a conspiracy against change there might as well be.
    Where this takes me is to a slightly odd question: “If we were to imagine that society was to try to undermine our efforts at change, what would it do?” One of many things it would do (as far as I can guess) would be to divert us from tackling some of the real problems by presenting us with a tempting target (actually a scapegoat).
    Does that help a little?
    I can say more if you want – but I’m known for giving complcated answers to simple questions so I better stop here.

  8. Hi there,
    Thanks for writing about Allegra–that’s so sad, isn’t it? The poor kid’s name means ‘joy’ and she has this horrid, wasting thing happening to her :-(((.

    I would just like to subscribe to what you said regarding Donatella’s commenting on the issue versus her own responsibility to the youngster as a mother. It reminded me of how some eating disorders, with anorexia nervosa foremost among them, are seen by many worldwide experts in this field as a direct consequence of the necessarily difficult relationship a daghter forms with a dysfunctional mother who has herself an unhealthy relationship to food and her own body, and is often uncomfortable with her own femaleness. That great classic, Susie Orbach’s Fat Is A Feminist Issue, is I think a real eye-opener on this topic.

    I’m glad someone finally put the angle of Donatella’s own responsibility in the development of her daughter’s unhealthy body image. In most other coverage of anorexia nervosa in general, whether the sufferer is famous or not, the mother is presented as an unambiguous figure of tragedy, on whom a tragic disease has been visited through her daughter, and who retains the status of careful caring mother, and best person to judge said daghter’s good, rather than someone whose own failure to try to address their issues has resulted in some serious and obvious fallout for their children–which is crazy when you see what a difference TRYING can make in the daughter’s self-regard.

    Sometimes I swear it sounds almost as though the mother suffers more! Ah well. I guess we live in a weird world.

  9. RW, I do understand what you are saying re: media etc – diverting the public from tackling the issue at hand by swaying where the focus should be, but I do disagree that the fashion industry is being used as a scapegoat. A scapegoat is seen as a victim bearing hostility from others. Personally, I believe The fashion industry is no victim/scapegoat when it comes to how they choose to peddle what beauty is via the models they use. If we look through history models are getting skinnier and skinnier. The naturally voluptuous cury models are so rare now. The natural female body and accurate representation of it is disappearing. Instead it is replaced with young women whose bodies look like they are barely post pubesent or they look like they are starving themselves. Or, they are simply photoshopped beyond fair representation. The fashion industry chooses to market this. The public can choose not to buy into it if they are tired of being manipulated this way.

    Unfortunately, we can not control what the media covers or emphasizes. There is no protest big enough to create any lasting change in that area which is very frustrating. But, I agree with you that the media and the public needs to tackle the stereotype of what real beauty is. In conversations with each other. There is so much judgement about body image because the public sense of what is real has become so skewed.

    Thanks for explaining your point of view. I do appreciate it.

  10. Joanne:
    Now my head hurts because you have me agreeing so strongly with what you say that I wonder if I am disagreeing with myself. I certainly don’t disagree about the industry’s guilt.

    I guess how I’m looking at this is only different in a very subtle way… when I use the word ‘scapegoat’ I think of a guilty party who is being asked to carry ALL the guilt to distract from the fact that lots of other parties share the fault. When I see so many newspapers eagerly pointing the finger at ‘size zero models’ I hear warning alarm bells. I find myself asking “what’s the down side of this sudden awareness?’

    I commented on this particular post because I think all the issues come together here. For instance, here’s a really difficult question: Is this family at fault – or are they victims?

    A more useful question might be: Could individual designers (etc) work differently if they wanted to – or does society only allow designers (etc) to be successful if they comply with social norms?

    What the fashion industry does makes me extemely angry. The post a few weeks ago with Dove video really showed what damage it does. But… I tend to think of social attitudes coming first – and parties like the fashion industry following on behind. Of course this is a chicken and egg argument because the result of the industry’s behaviour is to magnify social beliefs – and so on and so forth.

    Is there a point of obsessing so much about these fine details? I think so because this helps us to work out how to make change happen. Lets push the fashion industry very hard if we think we’ll change something – but without losing sight of how subtle things are.

    Thanks for asking for an explanation.

  11. Joanne/all
    I found a couple of really good articles that say something a little like what I was getting at in my previous comments here – only they’ve put it better that I could. l don’t necessarily agree with every word that they have written – and there are some assumptions hidden in the articles that I wouldn’t agree with. But both articles argue about ways in which ‘the size-zero debate” can be damaging. I think readers of About Face might find them interesting.
    They are on The f-word
    “Where the size zero debate goes awry” by Laurie Penny here:
    “Skinny Porn” by Abi Millar here:

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