Girl Talk: Extreme role models

Way back in 2005, a little known stylist named Rachel Zoe Rosenzweig sashayed her way into our collective consciousness as she fashioned her Young Hollywood underlings into youthful versions of herself.
Oversized sunglasses, aircraft-carrier 'It' bags, chunky gold jewellery, Grecian gowns and dark tans became the signature accessories du jour, further dwarfing (if not disguising the extent of) her clients' diminished bodies.

Lindsay Lohan, Mischa Barton, Keira Knightley and her makeover raison d'etre, Nicole Richie, became her calling cards, their pictures the staple diet of tabloid magazines proffering the latest celebrity diet tips. She claimed to be "more influential" than Anna Wintour. She published a book. She secured her own TV show deal. All the glossies featured her style tips, some enlisting her as a regular columnist. Her image – and that of her proteges – was everywhere.

But there was a sinister flipside to her rising star: Perez Hilton dubbed her 'Raisinface'; she was singled out for creating the 'Size 0' phenomenon; The New York Times called her a "pox on humanity" for "exploiting an aesthetic of dissipation"; and, in the ultimate face slap, Nicole Richie turned on her via MySpace writing, "What 35 year old raisin face whispers her order of 3 pieces of asparagus for dinner at Chateau everynight, and hides her deathly disorder by pointing the finger at me, and used her last paycheck I wrote her to pay for a publicist instead of a nutritionist?".

Scapegoat for the super-skinny celebrity phenomenon, which arguably started when Mary-Kate Olsen went wayward beneath her bag-lady clothes (and with the fashion industry before that), she may have been, but Zoe's influence was undeniable and far reaching, more to the detriment of women than their betterment. And it wasn't entirely her fault – the media couldn't get enough of her and her acolytes. She sold glossies. And they put this interest ahead of any thought of the negative affect her omnipresence (whether as herself or in the form of one of her charges) might have on women.

Fast forward to 2009 and it's like we're experiencing the Rachel Zoe phenomenon all over again, only this time it's in the form of celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson. Her "underlings" are Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, two of the most influential celebrities in the world. She claims to be able to re-shape any body to a svelte, virtually fat-free, "teeny-tiny" version of its former self.

In fact, it is her mission in life to see to it that every woman has the opportunity to look and feel amazing in her body, as she tells Sunday Life, she wants to give every woman "the tools to look and feel their best and to be able to do everything 100 per cent. To love their bodies, to absolutely not have cellulite, to not spend their money on gimmicks, to not have their emotions messed with. To not think they can't lose the baby weight – no way! Don't even go down that miserable road! My method is the best girlfriend you could ever have!". There are certainly more unworthy callings.

And she's getting her message out there via the press, the glossies, Oprah (who was really into The Secret at one stage, you might recall), her own website and DVDs, and Gwyneth's lifestyle website GOOP. Her working mantra (aka "The Tracy Anderson Method") is about pushing yourself harder with each workout and to use all your muscles, lest some of them become lazy (a word that registers alongside "hate" and "hell" in her vocabulary).

She sees herself as a superhero sent to earth to save womankind from its natural inclination towards curvature of a softer nature: "I walk down the street and it's almost like a superhero feeling, like, 'I could do this for that person.' It's about getting the content and information out there. So I decided to use the internet to offer mini-moves all the time that people can add on to the DVD routines."

Like Zoe before her, it's Anderson's extremism and cultish following that sends alarm bells ringing. Rather than replacing solid meals with Starbucks coffee, she favours grueling workouts, dismissing Bikram yoga and Pilates as valid forms of exercise, as "lots of dancers have horrible bodies", says running gives you an ugly butt and endorses daily, hour-long workouts to achieve "hot body" perfection. She is Hitler in hot pants.

But she could also be classified as bulimic – the type that compensates for food consumption by exercising, confessing that, "When I first met them [Madonna and Paltrow], I literally was dunking a double-stuffed Oreo into a can of processed icing...", though now she just eats a brownie every morning and is "buttercream-frosting-obsessed".

A year ago, I spoke with Marion Maclean ( about "anorexia athletica" (aka compulsive exercise), a condition which she had suffered and I could strongly identify with. Unlike anorexia and bulimia, exercise is socially acceptable and encouraged – but like its eating disorder cousins, over-exercise becomes a problem when it affects the sufferer's quality of life. Symptoms include:

- feeling guilty or anxious when you miss a workout
- exercising even when sick or hurt
- skipping family time, time with friends or other obligations to work out
- calculating exercise according to calorie intake
- an inability to sit still
- reduction in calorie intake to compensate for lack of exercise

Like a strict diet, the kind of intensive, dedicated workouts that Anderson condones can't possibly be sustainable over the long term. And there's a danger in becoming so obsessed with the amazing results these workouts have on your body that you can't foresee living your life without them and/or your self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the after-buzz of an exercise session and a trimmer tummy.

Of course, I advocate exercise. But any kind of extremism can only be to the detriment of one's physical, emotional and mental health (the proof's in my own pudding!). Is it a coincidence that Rachel Zoe's former client Mischa Barton has battled with weight and body image demons? Or that Madonna's marriage collapsed under the strain of her rigid adherence to a strict exercise schedule (I know, I know, it's more complex than that, but I strongly believe it may have been a contributing factor).

Rather than promoting the causes of these prophets of body submission, I think it's a far safer and more responsible proposition to find women who sit somewhere in the middle with regards to health to speak into our lives. I have nothing personal against Zoe or Anderson, of course – I'm sure they're both lovely people – but what they symbolise and espouse is, frankly, dangerous behaviour.

My current preferred health and wellbeing role model is Sarah Wilson, the former MasterChef host and Cosmopolitan editor whose Sunday Life column has fast become a wholesome weekly must-read for me, probably because I can identify with her journey of returning to full health via a more holistic, balanced approach (unlike me, she suffered from Hashimotos, a form of thyroid disease, which also caused her to hit physical rock bottom).

A self-described "shocking reward snacker", in her latest 'A Better Life' column she writes, "I don't do diets. I like to think it's because I'm intellectually above them (statistically they fail, they're destructive, look what they did to Princess Di), but it's more that I'm not good at "not doing" things. Being told to refrain or limit myself makes me want to do the opposite... So to put my treat habit in check, as of this week I do eat chocolate. But it's not the grab-and-shove; it's dark, expensive and worthy of treat status... There should be a poignancy, with every surge of saliva enjoyed. There should be a true reward, with closure... This gentle, kind framing of food is gaining momentum and has emerged as the 'positive eating' movement overseas. The principle is simple – achieve wellness and your happy weight by approaching food with positive and conscious intent."

Asparagus for dinner? Treadmill for lunch? Forgedaboutit – Wilson's approach sounds more like my cup of (green) tea.

"Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to to his life?" Matthew 6:25

Yours truly,
Girl With a satchel


Gillian said...

Great post. I agree that this sort of thinking and extreme behaviour is unhealthy. It's always importance to maintain balance in your life. What annoys me is that the psychological benefits of exercise are never emphasised ie increased self esteem, increased levels of confidence, an improved body image and reduced stress levels and tension etc If you exercise for your mental health first and pyschological wellbeing, then the physical benefits will surely follow.

Melissa Blake said...

AWESOME post! xoxo

Krista said...

Great article Erica, I choose Sarah Wilson as a role model any day!

Ali said...

Woah! this post is amazing! I've never been fat, although as a premmie baby i got teased for being skinny when younger. now i'm a size 8-10 and am not stressed about body image. I'm lucky and still have a fast metabolism on my side...although am now realising the importance of eating healthy, the right foods in balance and exercising to keep fit (not to fight the flab)...

thanks for this fantastic entry! i'm definitely going to be reading more from sarah wilson!

thank you. and hopefully this reaches women who really need to hear (read) it!

Style On Track said...

fantastic read :)

Sash said...

Good post! I think that there should be more articles out there about people abusing their body with exercise. It's pumped into our brain how great exercise is, with all its benefits, but increasingly people are using it to justify a kind of eating disorder.

petal said...

thanks erica. i finished the article on tracy anderson feeling a little deflated about my 'lazy' habits and not-as-hot-as-gwyneth body, not sure if she was right or i was right. thanks for putting it back into perspective xx

i also liked sarah wilson's column this week, though in previous weeks she has sounded unbearably smug to me...

Julie said...

Great post Erica. I finished reading that article about Tracy Anderson and felt somewhat slapped about the face! I also love the comment by Gillian - so often exercise is viewed only as a vehicle for weight loss and not as something that is great for our health and wellbeing,

Renee said...

Hey Erica,

New time reader here but I already love your blog :)

Anyways, great post and I love the verse you ended it with. As far as eating goes, I say everything in moderation - be it eating or exercise!


CA said...

Excellent article GWAS. So glad it's not just me who was deeply disturbed by this article. Everything about Tracey Anderson seemed so wrong - from boasting about eating that crazy sugary concoction to the teeny tiny body ideal (even that term disturbed me.) The message it sent was so false and so brutal.
I am not sure whether it was the airbrushing but I also found the images of her little girl doll like face really creepy and just reinforced my feelings of unease about the article. The contradiction of that piece to Sarah Wilson's was striking and as i lay in bed drinking hot milo and reading the Sunday Life last night I know who's way of thinking I was subscribing to.

milsnash said...

I read the article about Tracey Anderson over the weekendand was rather confused about why Gwyneth Paltrow would choose to be associated with someone so extreme and crazy sounding!
I thought Ms Paltrow was an avocate of the gentle life, where everything is to be savoured and enjoyed in moderation? Or this seems to be what she highlights in her posts on GOOP....
Tracey Anderson seems a little nuts and extreme to me!
I agree with you Erica, a balanced approach is best and I would choose Sarah Wilson as a role model any day.