This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.
“Write yourself: your body must make itself heard.” – Helene Cixous
The thin body is made for consumption. Reduced to its essence, potent and pure, distilled on sleek magazine covers, we swallow it like a smooth pill. We stare hungrily at tabloids in the supermarket checkout line, rows of artistically angular women staring coldly back. The thin body itself does not consume. It transcends want and need. And Nicole Richie, a girl who is clearly needy, who so desperately wants to be wanted and has redesigned her body to attend those needs, rises above the rest.
In November 2005, the reality TV star graced the cover of cheeky Jane magazine. On The Simple Life, which debuted in 2003, Richie was the court jester to Paris Hilton’s princess routine. She had the foul mouth and dirty mind to pull it off, but she also looked the part. Hilton’s svelte body and carefully coifed appearance was the ultimate foil to Richie’s round, ratty, ridiculous look. So when she appeared in Jane, resplendent amongst a hazy field of summer flowers, she was barely recognizable. The rough-hewn recovering heroin addict suddenly possessed classic Audrey Hepburn grace. Richie had new clothes, new hair, new makeup, a new dog. But the most dramatic difference was her new body. The teaser on the cover read, “Nicole Richie on her drastic weight loss and that Paris catfight.” By dropping the pounds Richie shed her old image.
This is the slim-down dream: Leave your excess baggage behind, become light as a bird, and the sky is the limit. It is no surprise that her continuing weight loss was applauded as part of a stunning makeover. In Style dedicated their summer 2006 “Beauty Transformation” to Richie, displaying an initially unflattering timeline of pictures starting in November 2001 that culminated in her triumphant rebirth as “a modern Twiggy.”
Then the narrative became more sensational. On Nov.13, 2006, Richie was once again a cover girl. This time she was the lead story for celebrity magazines OK! and In Touch, and was prominently featured on the front of People, Life & Style and Us Weekly. She even got The National Enquirer. The headlines declared “Scary-Thin Nicole Seek Treatment” and “85 lb. Nicole’s Fight for Her Life.”
When her body continued to shrink, going from stunning to scary, Richie defined a new breed of skinny star. The tabloids anointed them the “pin-thins.” Teen idols like Lindsey Lohan, Mischa Barton and Richie passed their nights in the same clubs with the same men wearing the same designer clothes. Yet the common link in their narratives became self-destruction in all forms, especially those vices that could support their poignantly waifish appearance.
Eating disorders are conventionally interpreted as a way to take control, to reestablish personal power by seizing your own body. But control took on a different connotation with the pin-thins. These young women were referred to as “out of control.” Their alleged eating disorders looked more like a rebellious outburst or angry addiction than the passive submission of starvation. Each pound lost symbolized another screw falling from their unhinging lives. Ultimately, these freefalling party girls overindulged, even when it came to restrictive nature of extreme weight loss.
In a perverse inversion that confirms every little girl’s body image nightmares, the dangerously tiny stars become increasingly popular. Life & Style featured Richie in a September cover story called “Body Obsession: Extreme diets! Plastic surgery! Why gorgeous young stars are risking their lives for the perfect body.” The perfect body meaning extreme thinness, an aesthetic that physically and mentally weakens women. Losing significant amounts weight requires a caloric deficit through restriction or purging that leaves the body constantly lacking fuel. So the body begins to eat itself in an attempt to survive, burning both fat as well as muscle tissue, which includes vital organs like the heart. Maintaining an unnatural weight requires a similar physiological struggle. As the body attempts to reset its metabolism, everything slows to a sluggish pace, the brain fuzzy and the body weak, still consuming itself in an attempt to find enough energy for daily functions.
Richie adamantly denies her weight loss is due to an eating disorder, but do the semantics matter when her body so clearly plays the part of an anorexic? The drastic weight loss has stripped away her multi-dimensional personality and turned her into a commodity, something to buy and consume. And commodities do not get to speak. In lieu of quotes, the tabloids prefer to highlight photographic timelines of her figure. In Touch estimated Richie is 5’2″ and lost 35 pounds in 3 years, equal to 28 percent of bodyweight. Life & Style guessed 40 pounds, showing three pictures of Richie labeled with their assessment. “First she was plump” at 125 pounds in 2003. After dropping to 108, “she was just right” at the end of 2004. “But then she went too far” when she hit 85 pounds.
Richie’s thinness, initially praised, now suspicious, has become the only voice we listen to. In the startling pictures, beneath the layers of designer clothes and huge sunglasses, her bones are razor sharp, her joints luminous in the fluorescent lights. We see an empty body; we see an empty soul. An empty soul is a blank canvas; a blank canvas is endless with possibilities. This lost girl, searching for love, found it the dead space that now surrounds her. So we watch, stealthy as vultures, always wanting, ravenous for more.