The Photoshop Cops

by Kevin D. Williamson
Cosmopolitan does not cause anorexia.

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Lois Capps (D., Calif.) have, at the urging of reformed adman Seth Matlins (D., formerly of Creative Artists Agency, Rock the Vote, etc.), offered up a very silly bill to empower the federal government to censor advertising on the theory that the overuse of photo-editing software causes anorexia and other eating disorders. The world being full of stupid people, there is an emotionally incontinent for-the-children petition demanding that the Federal Trade Commission implement this censorship, on top of Mr. Matlins’s earlier demand that advertising in which images have been altered — which is to say, advertising — be labeled to alert beef-witted Americans to the fact of that alteration.

Anorexia nervosa is a terrible condition that is not caused by Cosmopolitan magazine. The most significant risk factor for anorexia is genetic composition, not photo composition. While the research on the matter is far from settled, anorexia appears to be associated with a malfunction involving the EPHX2 gene, which, among other things, affects the metabolism of cholesterol and is associated with familial hypercholesterolemia. This points to a possible explanation of the counterintuitive fact that anorexics tend to have high cholesterol despite their restricted diets. Professor Cynthia M. Bulik of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill medical school (the occupant of the nation’s only endowed chair dedicated to the study of eating disorders) examined data from the Swedish Twin Registry (a very large sample population — nearly 32,000 individuals) and found that incidences of anorexia were much more strongly correlated in identical twins than in fraternal twins, suggesting a genetic component. Her analysis of the data suggests that genetic factors account for the majority of anorexia risk. “Fifty-six percent heritability,” she wrote, “that’s a fairly large contribution of genes.” Her research indicated that the development of anorexia later in life was strongly associated with early-manifesting neuroticism.

Research on the influence of environmental and cultural factors, including media exposure, is mixed, and much of it is ideologically shaped and interpreted. It is distorted in two common ways: The first is by lumping serious eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia in with less serious episodes of disordered eating, or with simple dissatisfaction with the appearance of one’s body, and treating the aggregate as a unified pathology — rather like treating chronic alcoholism and short-term collegiate binge drinking as if they were the same phenomenon. The second distortion comes from inadequately dealing with — or flatly refusing to account for — the fact that people who are suffering from a disordered obsession with body image seek out media that affirm their ideals or that provide information about diet and weight-loss strategies. Reading diet articles does not make you anorexic, but being anorexic attracts you to diet articles. Some researchers believe this to be a circular phenomenon — the media-consumption body contributing to and resulting from the disorder — and perhaps it is, but the inconsistency of findings, the elusiveness of the mechanism of causality, and the prominence of relatively straightforward biological factors together suggest that the media-oriented explanation of anorexia is yet another in a long line of feminism-derived ideological assaults on reality, which have done so much harm to so many fields of social research.

I have no doubt that Mr. Matlins and his congressional patrons are acting with the very best of intentions, or at least believe themselves to be, but the attack on media beauty standards is largely a lamentably exhibitionist act of moral theater. Setting aside the obvious First Amendment issues, it might have occurred to Mr. Matlins, and to Representatives Ros-Lehtinen and Capps, that in an age of wall-to-wall pornography — including the distasteful subgenre of anorexic-centered pornography — asking a panel of kommissars down at the FTC to step on Lululemon ads in the service of a wobbly theory about the causes of eating disorders is probably going to have negligible effect. There is more to culture than advertisements, and unless we are ready to start banning everything from Angelina Jolie’s cheekbone extensions in Maleficent to breast augmentation, we will continue to confront images of human beings that are altered in the direction of some unknown aesthetic ideal.

That ideal, of course, is the real target here. Among the bouquet of crackpot ideas that have been bundled together under the heading “feminism” is the belief that beauty standards are a sort of conspiracy against women, used to keep them from making economic and political progress. Like the media-oriented analysis of eating disorders, this ignores a great deal of scientific research arguing that beauty standards, in their role as proxies for reproductive value, are more biologically evolved than “socially constructed,” as the insipid standard phrase has it. The world is of course a gorgeous mosaic of cultures, and 90-year-olds are hot in none of them. These things do not happen by accident. If we are in fact concerned about anorexia rather than about feminist metaphysics, then we’d probably do better to spend our time researching the genetics of cholesterol metabolism than measuring thigh gaps in Gaultier advertisements.

It is difficult to know what to make of a culture in which the federal government subsidizes sex-change operations while forbidding the alteration of photographs, but it is remarkable that the political tendency that insists on the depiction of “real women” in fashion advertising also, in other domains, defines “real women” to include people with functional penises and testicles used for sexual intercourse resulting in the occasional pregnancy. “Humankind,” as T. S. Eliot observed, “cannot bear very much reality.”

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.