I tend to find the Huffington Post more annoying than it’s worth to read, but every so often I’ll scan through in a weaker moment, mainly to see what new inanity the popular culture has birthed. In so doing this morning, I came across this story:
The ad in question addresses a common dilemma: to dessert, or not to dessert? An already slim woman is frozen in front of her office’s refrigerator, an inner monologue belying a complex barter system that could justify a piece of raspberry cheesecake.
She could have a small slice, she rationalizes; she has been “good.” Or maybe a medium slice with some celery sticks. Or what if she were to jog in place while eating a big slice of cake followed by some celery sticks – that would cancel everything out, right?
This spiral of obsession and restriction ends when a skinnier coworker grabs Raspberry Cheesecake Yoplait Lite. The first woman’s decision has been made.
“[For those with eating disorders], opening a refrigerator is like walking off a bridge,” said Lynn Grefe, president of NEDA. “And to see this behavior in a commercial tells people with eating disorders, see, it’s even on TV. It’s ok and normal for my head to go through all these mental exercises.”
“I was shocked by how they really nailed it on the head–that’s exactly what I thought every time I opened a refrigerator door,” said Jenni Schaefer, who remembers experiencing negatives feelings towards food as young as 4 years old. Scheafer battled anorexia in high school and bulimia in college; she began treatment for her disease when she was 22 years old. Now 35, she considers herself fully recovered and has written two books on recovering from eating disorders.
“When you live with an eating disorder, you divide all foods into “good” and “bad” categories, like the yogurt versus the cheesecake [in the commercial],” Schaefer said. “Pretty soon everything moves into the bad category.”
Grefe says that NEDA “applauds” Yoplait and parent company General Mills for agreeing to pull the commercial days after the group voiced concerns.
“We had no idea,” Tom Forsythe, VP of Corporate Communications for General Mills, said to the Huffington Post. “The thought had never occurred to anyone, and no one raised the point. We aren’t sure that everyone saw the ad that way, but if anyone did, that was not our intent and is cause for concern. We thought it best to take it down.”
I can understand why General Mills decided to pull the ad. It’s far too easy for controversy to spin out of control, and I can’t blame a large corporation for being chary of creating the appearance of indifference to the plight of sick people.
I actually saw the ad in question before it was pulled, and didn’t think a thing of it. The Better Half commented on the ridiculousness of the premise that anyone seriously craving cheesecake would find that yen met by lite yogurt, but it was an otherwise unremarkable commercial. It seemed no different from any of the other commercials that revolve around the conceit that people (women, almost always) are concerned with their weights and physical attractiveness, and analyze which foods and drinks will help them look as svelte as possible. (Cf. every other ad for diet, lite, low-fat, “smart,” “healthy,” etc. foods and beverages on the market.)
I do not think that General Mills should have been made to pull this spot. As a specialist in adolescent medicine, I’ve managed the care of several patients with eating disorders, and know colleagues whose work is focused exclusively on treating such patients. Any honest medical provider who takes care of patients with eating disorders will concede that they are among the most challenging, frustrating patients to treat. Anorexic or bulemic patients are often very, very resistant to treatment, and the disorders are often refractory to intensive therapy. It takes a lot of patience and a multidisciplinary approach to care for patients with these disorders, a feature of which is the tendency of those who suffer from them to obfuscate, stymie or sabotage their own care.
It’s probably true that a patient with an eating disorder has thoughts very similar to those depicted in the commercial. But the joke of the ad relies on those thoughts being common to a great many viewers (myself included). In a patient with a certain pathology, they may serve to reinforce an unhealthy behavior, but the thoughts portrayed are normal for most of us, or at least so commonplace and non-problematic as to be innocuous. Whose experience bears more consideration — that of the vast majority of viewers, or that of a small population of patients?
Further, patients with eating disorders have their dysmorphic body images and pathological attitudes toward eating reinforced by all manner of images and messages in popular culture. As I said above, the thoughts depicted in the Yoplait commercial are hardly unique. One might argue that our society has a warped and unhealthy view of what women should weigh and look like, and I’d be inclined to agree. I think the fashion and entertainment industries do reinforce a very dangerous standard of what is attractive, and there should be efforts to address and rectify this. But if a relatively anodyne depiction of common thoughts about what foods to choose are a trigger for disordered behaviors, then so is a lot of our otherwise acceptable popular culture. Defining what is permissible by the experience of an unhealthy few, particularly for a patient population as sensitive as this one, sets the bar too low.