Photographer Lauren Greenfield delivered a presentation last Wednesday about her new documentary film and accompanying book, Thin, which follows the lives of four women being treated for eating disorders at a residential clinic in Florida. Greenfield invited her viewers not only to empathize with her subjects’ illness, but also to think of them as the most extreme victims of society’s preoccupation with beauty and wealth.
Earlier in her career, Greenfield was interested in documenting manifestations of popular culture in the lives of young people. In one of her photographs, a boy dances with a go-go dancer at a Bar Mitzvah, his face at eye level with her bikini top. In another, a three-year-old in a tutu lounges luxuriantly by a display case filled with expensive high-heeled shoes at a Barneys department store in Hollywood. Culture’s influence is most visible in these displays of precociousness from Greenfield’s earlier books, Kids + Money and Fast Forward. She claimed that children are asserting and being forced to assert their identities as consumers and sexual beings earlier than ever before.
Thin is less overtly political than Greenfield’s earlier work and more interested in capturing the subject’s total experience, public as well as private. There are images of alienation and private torment: a woman in her late 20s, her face shriveled from crying, holds the phone to her ear in a dingy telephone booth; a former model reveals the scars scratched into her otherwise beautiful torso. But there are also images of friendships and social groups – a less conventional take on anorexia – including a group therapy session in which the women nervously eye a “fear food,” in this case a box of pop tarts. The number of sallow faces, patchy scalps and fleshless bones is kept to a minimum, perhaps to avoid the shock value and to challenge our preconceptions about what anorexic people look like. Whenever she did show us these images, she insisted we also hear what the victim is thinking and feeling. “I don’t think I’m good at anything,” says one woman, “but I know that I’m a good anorexic.”
More striking than how thin the women are is how unhappy they look. Their empty eyes seem always to stare, not with determination, but with an eerie absentmindedness. Greenfield noted that these women are so consumed by their illness and the click-clicking of the manual scale that is it is rare to hear them talk about their dreams or ambitions.
While Thin avoids commenting directly on society, it raises sociological questions, namely “Is our society making these people sick?” Anorexia nervosa was first documented in the 1870s but was relatively uncommon until after World War II. Today up to one in 10 young American women are thought to be afflicted, and of these, roughly one in seven die from the disease. Could it be that anorexia and the scenes of decadence, moral weakness, insecurity and self-loathing from Greenfield’s earlier books are symptoms of the same ailment? Are people with anorexia simply more committed than the average person to ideals we all share?
Also, although anorexia affects people all over the world, it is usually associated with American culture. Our entertainment industry has established globalized ideals of beauty which we now struggle to attain. If we struggle because we believe beauty, not diligence, is the key to success in America, then the traditional American dream has been replaced by a less noble and attainable version. The popularity of television shows from America’s Next Top Model to Extreme Makeover raises the possibility that we’ve not only accepted the hegemony of beauty, we’ve endorsed it. As Greenfield pointed out, we’ve begun to use our bodies as “blank canvases of a meritocracy where we can paint our own dreams and achieve our goals if we devote enough hard work, money and time.”
What’s interesting is that when Greenfield confronted us with the images of precocious sexuality, eating disorders and self-loathing associated with our own cultural decadence, we snapped out of it, recognizing beauty for the false prophet that it is. Most of us, if we had to choose, would still pick hard work and goodness over beauty and wealth. Our traditional values are still intact despite the time and energy we spend ignoring them.