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Jenni Miller

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Jenni Miller is a freelance writer in New York City. Inquire within!

Why Do We Still Have to Talk About Weight Loss in Movies?

If you put “Anne Hathaway weight” into Google, your computer might explode from all the results. And why would you? Probably because you’ve noticed that, in every interview she’s done for “Les Miserables,” (and even before, during “The Dark Knight Rises”) she was repeatedly asked about her weight and the grueling diet she went on to play the role of street waif Fantine in “Les Mis.” You just want to see what the fuss is all about.

Simply writing about body image and the movies feels exhausting and a little embarrassing, like, haven’t we done this already? Do we need to continue talking about it? Am I perpetuating the cycle by offering up another opportunity to scrutinize a performer’s body?

Let’s set aside, for a minute, the entire system that’s in place to make women and body image such a dominant force in media. From Method acting to the size of designer dresses actresses have to fit into for red carpet events, there are so many reasons why this has become the norm. When actors go to great lengths to transform themselves, it’s nearly impossible not to talk about.

Perhaps selfishly, I want to address what it’s like to be complicit in this system. It can be difficult to do an interview and avoid the very skinny elephant in the room. You know that your audience wants to read about how she lost weight or built muscle, or you have a higher-up who has instructed you to ask about it, no matter how much you squirm. It can be hard to ask, “How do you find the way you’re portrayed in the media to be totally effed up and focused on your weight loss [gain/proficiency at archery/etc.] instead of your work?” Instead, we default to, “Wow, so what was the one thing you dreamed of eating once the movie was over?”

It’s only when actors call us out on it, like Scarlett Johansson’s excellent takedown during “The Avengers” press tour of a journalist who asked her about her diet for Black Widow. “How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the, like, ‘rabbit food’ question?” she quipped to Robert Downey, Jr. How many other actors would like to let fly such a zinger in the face of non-stop questions about make-up, diets and costumes? I understand why they wouldn’t, but isn’t it great when they do? Which is not to pass the buck; I just admire really admire when people go off script and get real. The world would be a better place for it, and perhaps if stars weren’t forced to do endless press days around the world, they wouldn’t have to deal with quite so many head-bangingly dumb questions themselves.

It’s equally difficult, if not downright embarrassing, to acknowledge that I get sucked into this stuff too, and I have to remind myself this isn’t real. I’m a feminist, I’m a writer and I see how this sausage gets made. I shouldn’t be fooled, right? But it is always jarring to meet an actor in the flesh, and not just because I’m used to seeing her on a giant screen looming over me. They are frigging tiny — far, far tinier than they seem on the screen.

It disturbs me that entertainers represent a very small group of people whose bodies (that they work very hard to sculpt) have become the default, that we aspire to all look that way, that their shape and size is always shrinking, almost with our noticing. The funhouse mirror of Hollywood is making us think that everyone should aspire to body types that are the result of genetics and/or determined, obsessive weight loss and exercise that isn’t feasible or even very possibly healthy.

Obviously, no one is suggesting we aspire to look like Fantine, but when you’re already working with an ideal body type and whittling it down and still sexualizing it, it’s disturbing. Hathaway isn’t at fault here, and she’s not the only actor or actress who has either been pressured to lose weight for a role or taken it upon themselves to do so. Although I doubt audiences would have revolted if her Fantine didn’t look quite so close to death, it fits with the role and she gives an excellent performance.

It’s easy to joke that playing someone whose body or mind is differently abled is a shoo-in for an Oscar nom, but there’s some truth to it, and it’s catnip to actors who want to prove themselves. The problem is, it often works, and so it’s become more commonplace to see actors radically transform their bodies in short amounts of time. You might also say that for many of these actors, it’s part of their drive, perhaps even related to a perfectionism that makes for a great performer.

The challenge of transforming yourself for a part is a tantalizing goal, but the sorts of damage it can do to your body and brain on a long-term basis can’t be underestimated. It’s also a very slippery slope to disordered eating. As Mila Kunis said to E!,  “In real life, it looked disgusting… But in photographs and on film, it looked amazing.” It took her a little bit of time to readjust to putting the weight back on.

And let’s be clear. There are plenty of male actors who also radically transform their bodies for their craft or for pressure from others. Jackman also did it for “Les Mis,” and Christian Bale is known for losing and gaining disturbing amounts of weight and/or muscle mass for roles. Tom Hardy has gained a crazy amount of muscle mass over the years to be in movies like “Warrior” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” If you look at him in “Lawless,” which was filmed between those two productions, his (adorable!) sweaters can’t really conceal the enormity of his upper body.

These weight changes are no healthier than Hathaway’s or Natalie Portman’s for “Black Swan.” Men’s magazines obsess over their workout routines, and there are more than a few whispers about how some of them got so beefy so fast. Whatever the case, men aren’t immune to the effects of drastic yo-yo dieting or the media’s response. The title of this article, “Jonah Hill: From hunk to chunk?” shows that no one is safe from body snarking. Jason Segel was told to lose weight for “The Five-Year Engagement” because he was paired with Emily Blunt, and who would believe they’d be together? That’s straight up cruel.

Then there’s the inverse, where an actor like Charlize Theron or Robert De Niro gain a lot of weight to play a character. Theron was excellent in “Monster,” and part of it was because of her transformation into Aileen Wuornos, but much was made of how the former model gained weight and made herself “unattractive” by movie star norms. It’s usually regarded as brave for someone as gorgeous as Theron to make herself look like a regular person who had a really hard life and looked it. At the same time, she was marvelous. And we can’t not talk about it as part of the performance.

So, where do you begin to unravel it all?


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Tags: Anne hathaway, Les Miserables