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The skinny on Hollywood

Bony bodies may be ridiculed in the media, but the pressure to look thin is fiercer than ever. It's enough to make an actress wonder: Will I ever eat in this town again?

August 19, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

I'm searching for body fat in Hollywood. It's the 2007 MTV Movie Awards, and judging by the standards of the youth-obsessed network's magenta carpet, blubber, let alone curves, or even softness is out of fashion. Girls -- and I mean girls, given their lack of womanly heft, glide by. Jessica Biel, in a loose black mini-dress. Jessica Alba, with sylph-like arms rising above her red puffy mini-dress. Cameron Diaz, at 34, the veritable grandma of the bunch in a black micro-dress, only inches longer than a bathing suit.

Not one woman won an award that night, but the few female presenters hovered like ethereal specters over such giant, solid, male movie stars as Jack Nicholson, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. Host Sarah Silverman, in a parade of girlish dresses, presided like the tiny, squeaky voiced, mean girl from every high school nightmare.

It's no newsflash that women are skinny in Hollywood -- by far skinnier than the 66% of Americans who qualify as overweight or obese. But are they getting skinnier? Or do we just read a lot more about them as an endless stream of celebrity rags and fashion mags chronicle their corporal exploits, alternately castigating and holding them up for public ridicule when their bones stick out (Attention: Kate Bosworth! Mischa Barton! Nicole Richie!) and celebrating the personal resourcefulness they exploited to lose excess poundage.

Some believe that yes, women in Hollywood are shrinking, even more than in previous decades. Amid the attention given recently to the finding, published in the July 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, that obesity is "contagious" -- that people tend to get fatter when the people they consider friends get fatter -- these days Hollywood is giving ample evidence that the reverse is true as well.

It makes sense: Social norms affect a person's weight. When a woman's most successful peers have protruding bones, she's going to feel pressure to head in that direction as well..

One person who's noticed that Hollywood women are skinnier than ever is casting director Joseph Middleton, who has cast an array of youth-oriented films such as "American Pie", "Go" and the upcoming "Jumper." "The girls that are considered the ingénues of the day are getting thinner," Middleton says. "You can tell, because the first year that you [audition] them, they come from Chicago, Ohio and Georgia, and they're really pretty girls who are healthy.

"A year later, you read them and they look like slimmer Hollywood versions. I can't tell you how many times producers and directors have said, 'Well, she's a little heavy for camera.' I don't think they're saying, 'We want these girls to be unhealthy,' but they sure like that thinner version."

The competition diet

Us editor in chief Janice Min, another close observer of Hollywood's mores, agrees that extreme thinness "has definitely become an issue." Min says for many actresses, it has come to seem like a question of survival. "Obviously, being a female celebrity, you're in constant competition whether you want to believe it or not. You're competing for roles, parts, male attention, and it's a competition primarily involving looks. It's a system of rewards, and you are rewarded for being the most beautiful, the sexiest, and the competition has almost extended to being the thinnest."

The rest of us, meanwhile, have gotten so used to it that we've stopped seeing it. "On the red carpet, people used to wear outfits with sleeves and necklines that went up to their necks," Min points out. "There's been such a movement to show more and more and more, and it seems inevitable that the pursuit of the most perfect body you can achieve has consumed actresses. You don't want to be the one actress whose photo is taken with two skinny actresses and you look like Shrek. Everyone's eye has adjusted to the new reality that doesn't reflect reality in the least."

One major costume designer says that when looking for clothes for actresses, she can hardly find any in size 0 -- "They're all sold out."

"Look at the cast of the TV shows, they're not even 0, they're double 0," says Min. "The competition to be thin, I've never seen anything like it."

Perhaps it's a sign of Hollywood's readjusted eye that whenever an average-size woman -- a Jennifer Hudson or an America Ferrera -- bursts into the limelight, there's the predictable magazine frenzy over robust women who still manage to be successful, who are not going to commit hari-kari over being a size 10. Of course, in the cases of Hudson and Ferrara, their curves were specific to the roles they broke out in -- in fact they became a shorthand for their character's feistiness, for their willingness to defy the expected norms of their environments.

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