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Thinness - and female unhappiness - is big business

Princesses – always in need of rescue, always impossibly thin – seem to be everywhere these days. Actress Portia de Rossi has fairy-tale hair, climb-ably long and tumbling in blond waves to her waist.

At one point, that hair was probably the heaviest thing about her, along with the weight of her eating disorder. In her new memoir, Unbearable Lightness, de Rossi kicks up the wormy underbelly of a Hollywood Horatio Alger story: Aussie moves to L.A., finds fame on TV, happily marries the most prominent lesbian in Hollywood, Ellen DeGeneres. But the reality was far grimmer. De Rossi describes how her time in the closet and industry pressures triggered severe anorexia and bulimia. At one point, she hit 82 pounds, scarfing laxatives and consuming just 300 calories a day.

De Rossi got her big break on Ally McBeal, a show that made its debut in 1997 and set off a media maelstrom over the emaciated cast. It was around that time that celebrities began to vanish: The female stars of Friends seemed to shed five pounds per season during the show's 1994-to-2004 run. Now Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston are sinewy as rope tows, their bodies unrecognizable from 16 years ago.

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Of course, thinness and celebrity have always gone hand in hand. As famous non-royal Wallis Simpson is credited with saying: You can never be too rich or too thin. Kate Moss updated the edict a few years ago, quipping between sips of lemon water that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. But since those Ally McBeal days, the measure of thin has become crueller and the obsession unyielding. Paparazzi seize upon famous women's distended stomachs ("Baby bump or bagel?"); Jennifer Hudson's weight loss becomes her life story, more defining than the fact that her mother, brother and nephew were murdered. Thin is the inviolate rule of fame.

Of course, every few years, a model dies of anorexia or a Christina Hendricks generates heat and the fashion industry makes a gesture toward healthier depictions of women, like Vogue's "Size Issue" or the runway appearance of plus-sized model Crystal Renn. But these gestures don't engender a real shift; depictions of women's bodies in all different sizes never become the norm, but always remain the novelty. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is the exception proving the rule, which is simple: thinner.

The confusion, of course, lies in the fact that 35 per cent of adults are overweight and 24 per cent are obese (and more men are overweight than women – 41 per cent versus 29 per cent). But fat people are an invisible majority, rarely seen on film or TV. If they are glimpsed, their career trajectory is severely limited (how's it going for Gabourey Sidibe since Precious?). Fat is ordinary and ordinary has no part in celebrity, which is about the exaltation of the impossible: the wealth, the fame, the body.

Portia de Rossi is 37, but Demi Lovato, the other princess in the news, is all of 18. Lovato, a superstar singer-actor-shaker concoction baked in the Disney oven, recently dropped out of the Jonas Brothers tour to receive treatment for "emotional and physical issues," reportedly linked to eating disorders and self-mutilation. Lovato once starred in a Disney TV movie called Princess Protection Program, playing a princess forced to live among humans. (This scenario is, of course, the platform on which rests the multibillion-dollar princess industry.)

Her huge teen girl audience is watching Lovato closely. What do Demi Lovato's fans see when they look in the mirror ("If she thinks she's fat, what am I")? It's hard to know if the fixation on celebrity thinness triggers emulation, but it's true that, while obesity is on the rise in Canada, so is anorexia among girls, according to Children's Mental Health Ontario. A 2002 Health Canada survey found that 28 per cent of girls in Grade 9 and 29 per cent in Grade 10 are engaged in weight-loss behaviours. A British psychologist recently published a paper in The Biologist on research showing that looking at pictures of undernourished women (portrayed as "normal") set off anxiety and unhappiness in the brains of women subjects.

But female unhappiness is big business. On Nov. 28, a show called Bridalplasty makes its debut on E! It reads like parody, but is, swear to God, a reality show on which women compete against each other for the privilege of pre-wedding plastic surgery, a human version of Extreme Home Makeover where the body is gutted and rebuilt like a condo. On the wedding day, the winner will be revealed in her white dress with a new face/breasts/whatever – princess bride or bride of Frankenstein? Feminist writer Kathryn Pauly Morgan describes the state of female beauty as "wounded," how – through dieting or surgery – the new norm for the body is injured. The new norm is sick.

Last week, women I know with daughters were watching them closely, listening for Demi Lovato reverberating through the earbuds. They want to pull up their child's sleeves and check for damage, to hover by the bathroom door. The mothers lie awake waiting for the great recalibration, when the body will be normal again, and the princesses will kick down the tower.

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