Body double take

Think movies don't affect the way we think and act? Then why do we triple-lock our doors after we get home from a horror movie, or walk out of a sappy romance staring forlornly at a bare ring finger? Fact is, movies ingrain lessons - and they're not always the good kinds you learned during junior-high health-class videos, like how to perform the Heimlich or keep your special places smelling pretty.

In her new book, Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders, Dr. Emily Fox-Kales lays bare how the modern celebrity sphere and mainstream movies - from American Pie to Mean Girls - contribute to body-image obsessions in women and, increasingly, men. Her expert film analysis is peppered with insights from those who have battled eating disorders: real, ordinary people she's encountered in her work as a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. She is also a professor of film and media psychology at Northeastern University. And on Thursday, September 22, she'll school the wider public at Porter Square Books (25 White Street, Cambridge, 617.491.2220) during a book signing and discussion of Body Shots. (For a full list of upcoming public appearances, visit emilyfox-kales.com.) But with summer-movie season upon us, we thought now was a perfect time to get her thoughts on some weighty issues.  

Your book went to press before the release of Black Swan, which received a lot of body-image-related attention. Thoughts? I think the director was trying to make a statement, saying to young girls, "Don't try to achieve perfection. You'll wind up the psychotic ballerina, the dead ballerina." There was an eating disorder clearly depicted. But the buzz outside the movie was interesting and troubling. Everybody was less interested in the film's message about the dangers of perfectionism, and instead talked about what a hero Natalie Portman was for losing 30 pounds and training for eight months to stretch her limbs as much as possible. I call that the ideology of fitness. We worship and revere fitness that's far beyond the natural reach of anyone who doesn't work out constantly. At its extreme are eating disorders, or reverse anorexia: guys who can't get "big" enough.

How are media images internalized? There's a psychological process of identification and idealization. While staring at the screen, we enter imaginatively into the life of the people on it. It looks seductive and tempting to be those depicted as larger than life. The next time we look in the mirror, we think, "My arms are flabby compared to Megan Fox's." Or, "When I watched Christian Bale in The Dark Knight, he looked so powerful." My male students are fascinated with his body. They see him as a method actor who's willing to go to the mat, literally, for his role.

Buff leading men are getting a lot of attention in this summer's blockbusters. How do movies like Green Lantern or Captain America reflect ideas about male body image? I think the muscularity of summer movies like Thor reflects the idea of emasculation of economic power. This last recession was a man-cession. I think guys see something in these retro comic-book superheroes that restores a sense of sheer physical power about the male body. Boys and men today might find it comforting because they're on the unemployment line, their wives are making more money than they are, or they're staying home with the kids. There's something very nostalgic in these movies.

Recent reports show an alarming increase in eating disorders among women over 35. Is there a media relationship? What you're talking about is reflected on shows like Desperate Housewives: the idea of getting older has been reformulated. You're not allowed to look older. Boomers are supposed to be sexually viable, physically beautiful and fit, and doing exciting things into their 70s. Take the figure of "the cougar": she's into younger guys and has to be ready to score. But she can't look 40. So she has to have a lot of work: Botox, lipo, implants. These are the women who are frequent fliers at the cosmetic surgeon's office. But we're also seeing more eating disorders in even younger girls. They're barely out of middle school but have been dieting for years. They don't get that in Mean Girls Tina Fey was actually making fun of the "plastics." They're impressionable, and we need to make them media savvy.