In a country plagued with an obesity epidemic, it’s easy to overlook the 10 million Americans suffering with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The news is filled with images of overweight families and children, and on the opposite end of the physical spectrum, millions of men and women are self-destructing by starving themselves and purging their meals. Twenty percent of people with eating disorders die from their illness, making it the psychiatric disorder with the highest mortality rate. We can’t sweep 10 million suffering people under the cultural carpet because the rest of us are eating too much and not exercising enough.
Beauty Mark, a 2008 documentary from SheArt Productions, exposes the painful and intricate causes and effects of the eating disorder epidemic in our society. Through powerful footage, haunting personal stories, and interviews with survivors and experts, the film explores body image, disordered eating, beauty standards, and perfectionism in a broad range of contexts, from individual athletes’ experiences to the effects of these illnesses and unhealthy beauty ideals on a societal scale.
“I felt paralyzed by my own machine.” – Diane Israel
Filmmaker and narrator Diane Israel provides her joint expertise as a survivor of an eating disorder and a psychotherapist. The film begins with her personal story, which exemplifies the effect of disordered eating on competitive athletes. Israel’s running career, which began when she was only eight years old, was defined by numerous victories. Footage portrays the deterioration of her talent into a self-destructive obsession with success and perfection. “She needed to enjoy the sport,” says her childhood coach Dick Traum. “What she was doing was she was too much into the speed and the mileage, and she wasn’t having fun.”
Israel’s exhaustion becomes palpable as the poison of adolescent self-loathing infiltrates her young, athletic body. Israel begins her battle with anorexia at the age of 12, and it continues until she has wasted away, fueled by her conviction that she must be better, faster, and thinner.
“I feel sad sometimes that I can’t truly love myself for who I am, and like I’m never enough.” – Brenda Maller
Israel’s self-destructive drive for perfectionism expands beyond her personal experience to fellow runners and triathletes, shown crying, hunched over, lying on the ground. They crawl across finish lines and are carried away on stretchers.
The context of eating disorders further extends to the general athletic community. Israel investigates the undercurrent of body distortion among the packs of exercise fanatics in athletic communities and beyond. Most striking in this section of the film is the footage of a spinning class, in which cyclists sweat and grimace on stationary bikes. Their faces reflect undeniable pain, and Israel captures the conjunction of “health” and agony. Brenda Maller, the class teacher, speaks frankly in an interview. “I think everyone in the room has some sort of body issue in order to be in here,” she says. She discusses her own distorted body image, the internal criticism of a lean figure and rippled biceps that evidence a lifetime of discipline and exercise. This interview reflects a terrifying reality: even society’s athletic goddesses, with hard-earned sculpted bodies, carry the conviction that they will never be thin enough, strong enough, beautiful enough. The destructive pattern of disordered eating and unhealthy body image seems to spare no one.
This sentiment is further revealed in interviews with world-class competitive athletes whose careers have been tainted by competitive self-destruction. Israel talks to physical trainers, marathon champions, and body builders—societal representatives of strength, grace, and discipline—who in spite of their extraordinary careers, admit to unhealthy body images and some level of physical self-abuse.
These athletes are figures of physical perfection, their bodies toned and firm even in semi-retirement, and the contrast between their undeniable strength and confessions of bodily shame demonstrates the relationship between competitive sports and eating disorders.
Personal anecdotes make these interviews particularly powerful. Six-time Ironman World Champion Dave Scott recalls doing bench presses in his hospital bed while being treated for exhaustion; bodybuilder Rick Jones says, “If I wasn’t able to work out… I’d rather be dead.” The inclusion of male athletes in the pool of interviewees highlights the underestimated impact of eating disorders on men—eating-related problems are widely viewed as female afflictions.
“Why was I so terrified of being fat? What was driving me to be so thin and at the top?” – Diane Israel
The film crew travels to New York City in search of answers to questions such as: Why do we hate ourselves, our bodies? Why do we deprive ourselves in the name of “beauty”? Who has created this standard of beauty, which, in reality, is truly impossible to attain? Israel interviews such experts as Naomi Wolf, author of the groundbreaking must-read The Beauty Myth, Eva Ensler, creator of Vagina Monologues, and Jane Brody, health writer for the New York Times.
These interviews focus on the most influential component of our society’s warped beauty standards: the media. The manufacturing of impossible physical norms is consistently explained and rebuffed. The diversity of Israel’s interview subjects provides a valuable range of perspectives on the significance of “the beauty myth.” She talks to Cinthia Rae Andrews, a burn victim whose conventionally beautiful face was disfigured; former supermodel Dawn Gallagher provides an insider perspective on the lies portrayed by the modeling industry; Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth, unravels the process of media images in berating consumers. Naomi Wolf discusses the sexualization of beauty through the infiltration of the fashion industry with pornographic images. A warehouse filled with mannequins shows the eerie, emaciated figures that taunt us from store windows. A day spa advertises microdermabrasion and teeth whitening; impossibly slender, bikini-clad mannequins pose in a store display.
In addition, Israel discusses other influences on self-image such as childhood teasing, controlling parents, sexual trauma, emotional discomfort, and a need for control. She theorizes about the roots of her own battle with body image, roots that will never be completely identified. “No single factor or person is to blame,” she concludes.
“I feel more beautiful now that I gave up on perfection.” – Joan Israel
Among Beauty Mark’s most painful revelations is the relevancy of its messages to my own life and the lives of my friends. The tragedy of self-destruction and the maddeningly unattainable fight for perfection echoed in my own 22-year-old heart. The film speaks to a theme in all too many lives. Few, if any, of my friends have been exempt from periods of self-hatred and bodily shame. I have seen beautiful young women pinch their skin and agonize over this sinful layer of “fat,” girls whose thighs are inches apart but not thin enough, girls who subsist on Hydroxycut and Clif Bars. Such pain has become almost a rite of passage, a social requirement to agonize over stretch marks, tooth gaps, asymmetrical breasts, and curvy hips. We are angry with ourselves for the physical quirks that make us human.
Beauty Mark’s investigations left me with conflicted feelings—enlightenment, confusion, fury, and a hesitant sense of hope. “There’s an emerging culture where women all over this planet—and men—are beginning to paint another picture of what we can look like and feel like and be,” says Eva Ensler.
From Diane Israel’s personal struggle to athletic communities to society at large, the film’s success lies in its exposure of the universality of physical shame and self-punishment. Beauty Mark’s exposure of the eating disorder epidemic begs the question what can we do about this? Eating disorders are so profoundly private—sufferers obsessively weigh themselves and scrutinize their reflections alone. How can we come together to challenge the effects of the media and societal messages on body image?
The film offers no suggestions. There is no specific call to action, no concrete steps to take. Beauty Mark does, however, spark a dialogue, both internal and external, about the role of the media and society’s messages in our understanding of ourselves, our bodies, and our values.
About the author: A native Bostonian, Ali Aird is an English major whose passions lie in creative writing and editing. As an assistant editor at Bartlett’s, Ali is drawing from the journal’s wealth of information to learn more about mind-body wellness. She is also the human companion for her oversized American Bulldog, Jackson.