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They're showing a lot of skinny

Who can follow the show when all you want to do is feed its ultra-thin actresses?

September 18, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

Here's a news flash -- young actresses these days are very, very thin. Reporting live from in front of their television sets, the editors of Entertainment Weekly and Us Weekly are shocked, shocked to discover that several female members of the cast of "90210" appear to have last eaten some time during the fifth grade. Since then, Jessica Stroup (who plays Silver) and Shenae Grimes (Annie) have apparently subsisted on iced coffee and breath strips.

There is no denying that Stroup and Grimes look more than a little frightening -- you have to wonder if the show's producers tried to save money by casting by the pound. But it's a bit disingenuous, not to mention tedious, for the entertainment press, which produces no greater praise than when a star sheds baby weight or other unsightly poundage, to dutifully trot out experts wringing their hands and disgorging boilerplate about the specter of an eating-disorder epidemic.

For one thing, unless you have the misfortune to be an aspiring actress, most eating disorders usually have roots far deeper and more complicated than wanting to look like Jenny on "Gossip Girl." Despite years of television's attempt to pare women down to skin and bones, we are in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic; even the Gap carries size 16 nowadays.

"90210" is unusual only in its choice to buck tradition. Historically, the skeletalization of women on an ensemble show has followed a pandemic model -- one horrifyingly thin actress (Calista Flockhart, Courteney Cox, Lara Flynn Boyle) "infects" the rest of the cast until by, say, Season 3, all of the women are shopping for negative sizes. And it seems a little unfair to pick on the newbies when over at "Grey's Anatomy," Ellen Pompeo remains so slender she makes Katherine Heigl seem heavy, and America Ferrera has lost so much weight it looks like they have to pad her to play her average-sized character on "Ugly Betty."

Their talent isn't thin

In fact, more shocking than the sight of today's waif-like 20-year-olds are the ranks of underfed fortysomethings who star in some of the most critically acclaimed shows on television. Kyra Sedgwick of "The Closer" and Holly Hunter of "Saving Grace" are two of the more talented human beings on the planet -- and if you put them together you might be able to fill out a pair of size 8 Lucky Brand jeans. Hunter especially is so thin that whenever she takes off her shirt, which she does quite a lot, you can feel the sweat of a thousand reps rise off your own skin. The ladies of "Desperate Housewives" are so far gone in terms of resembling humans that it's almost laughable to mention them, but even Felicity Huffman, self-described former "fat girl," has lost so much weight that when she wears those plunging necklines you can count her ribs.

A look far from tops

Much was made of how terrific the "Sex and the City" gals looked in their big-screen debut, but when Sarah Jessica Parker appeared whippet thin in skimpy pajamas, the value of body fat on a woman older than 40 was instantly and abundantly clear -- do we really want to be able to identify whole muscle groups in the middle of a cuddle scene? Probably not.

For years, feminists have insisted that the paring down of women on television is political, that as women gain social and economic power, society attempts to achieve some sort of balance by belittling them. Literally.

Me, I think it comes down to the tyranny of the tank top.

When did it become mandatory for every actress, no matter what her age or natural body type, to look good in a teeny-tiny tank top? Not just good, but good enough to wear them on television. In every episode of whatever show they're starring in. Cops in tank tops, lawyers in tank tops, fashion editors and stay-at-home moms. You know why the women of "Mad Men" look so fabulous? Because they don't have to wear a tank top.

What first appeared as adorable sleepwear on shows like "Friends" now has become de rigueur for any situation on women of any age. Both Hunter's Grace and Sedgwick's Brenda live in T-tees and sleeveless dresses. Over on HBO's "True Blood," poor Anna Paquin is wearing tanks so wee they look like toddlers' undershirts. "Weeds" is set in Southern California, so at least Mary-Louise Parker's Nancy Botwin has an excuse for all those spaghetti straps and baby-doll dresses, but the ladies of "Lipstick Jungle" huddle over their lattes in sleeveless silk and linen, never mind that it's autumn in New York and sleeting.

Why not accent accents?

Seriously, it may be the most oppressive instrument of fashion since the chastity belt. Yes, Linda Hamilton looked great when she buffed up for “Terminator 2,” but those biceps were necessary to save the world. Wouldn't it be better for actors to spend time working on, say, their Southern accents than doing endless sets of pull-ups? Do we really want a generation of women with arms like Madonna?

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