The famous acting coach Constantin Stanislavski once said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.”
Northern Irish actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes has become the literal embodiment of this quote by transforming her naturally slender body into a gaunt frame for an upcoming movie role as an Austrian kidnapping victim.
In doing so, she joins the list of incredibly shrinking actors and actresses, including Natalie Portman, Matthew McConaughey, and Christian Bale, who have shed sometimes shocking amounts of weight for roles.
This begs the question: Is extreme weight loss for the sake of a movie part good acting or just a plain bad idea? And what sort of message does it telegraph to an audience of impressionable young people, many of whom are already weight-obsessed?
Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., the assistant director of the eating disorders clinical and research program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, worries that Campbell-Hughes’ drastic downsizing may be viewed as desirable by some women, especially those who are predisposed to an eating disorder.
“Girls and women could easily look at her picture and think, ‘maybe I should look like that,’” says Thomas, who hasn’t met the actress.
Thomas says that many of her patients with anorexia and bulimia do a constant scan of the media in search of quick fix weight loss tips. If actors reveal the specifics of how they whittled down to such a dangerously low weight, vulnerable women are likely to try the same tactics even if they are obviously unrealistic or unsafe.
When Beyoncé went on a 2-week Master Cleanse to lose 20 pounds for her role in the move Dream Girls in 2006, juice fasting quickly became all the rage despite being condemned by medical experts. Portman’s gaunt Black Swan figure inspired a spate of magazine articles and blogs extolling the virtues of her punishing diet and exercise program–though she herself admitted the regimen made her feel like she was going to die at times.
Shedding too much body fat can increase the risk of numerous health issues, says Thomas, such as loss of periods, fatigue, anemia, hair loss, and a weakened immune system. Even if actors gain the weight back, it can cause long term problems such as bone loss and infertility.
And people who diet down for a role may have a tough time snapping out of anorexic-mode, says Thomas. (Tracey Gold, the Growing Pains actress who nearly died from anorexia, was on a medically supervised weight-loss plan before becoming dangerously thin.)
So it seems that actors who emaciate themselves for a role–whether on their own or due to pressure from a director, producer, or company making a movie–aren’t doing themselves or anyone else any favors. I’m all for realism on the big screen, but there should be a point where the responsibility to set a healthy example, and an actor’s personal health, outweigh the need to portray a super skinny character.
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