Monday, July 13, 2009

Did Poor Body Image Kill Michael Jackson?

Blog posted originally on July 13, 2009

Did Michael Jackson's body image disturbances ultimately kill him? Could he ever be thin enough, young enough, or white enough?

Michael Jackson embodied conflict between black and white, boy and man, male and female.

The physical manifestations of these psychological struggles played out for all the world to see.

Of course it seems likely that drug cocktails had a hand in his demise, but I am haunted by his hauntingly thin image. Perhaps his body could tolerate the intense concoctions better, if there was some meat on his bones.

All reports of food generally suggested healthy fare (i.e. chicken and vegetables), but given his strenuous dance and fitness routine, could this possibly be enough?

Control issues typically characterize eating disorders. One may not be able to control life stressors, but nobody else controls what does or doesn’t go into your mouth. His imminent super-duper comeback was probably overwhelmingly stressful. And, given the extremeness of the situation, it seems a member of his entourage was hired primarily to ensure that Mr. Jackson ate.

Poking around the Internet revealed that he discussed suffering bulimia as a boy, in response to his abusive father. Joe Jackson's incredibly controlling nature, coupled with Michael's fears of harsh discipline, could certainly explain an increased need for control. Restricting or purging food often makes one feel healthier, lighter, and even euphoric. It can fool one into believing this behavior is good, when in fact it may be debilitating.

A heart attack is sometimes an unfortunate effect of eating disorders. An imbalance of electrolytes adversely affects the heart, which can be caused by excessive sweating during exertion, or purging during bulimia.

Michael Jackson’s body image dissatisfaction is evidenced by the history of bulimia and other extreme measures, including serial surgeries, makeup and wigs.

Pressure to live up to cultural norms can cause distorted body image perceptions and obsessions. How many of us feel pressure to be thinner, and struggle with expectations to be skinnier than we are destined to be?

Any member of a discriminated group is programmed to reject or dislike that part of themselves which is disdained by others. Hating oneself for being fat can cause harmful attempts at yo-yo dieting, and other eating disorders.

Celebrity worship involves an irrational worship of thin, youth, and in many cases white. Check out my interview with WebMD about celebrity worship -- it was recently rated #1 on the Internet by Google.

The first step to reducing weight-related Body Image Dysmorphia is to proliferate the truth about "thin" being more deadly than "overweight."

Last week’s blog below discussed the Canadian study finding that thin people had a 73% higher death rate than normal weight people, while overweight people had a 17% lower rate. This confirmed the U.S. government study finding 86,000 fewer deaths in the overweight range and 33,000 more deaths in the thin range.

Perhaps as we lay to rest Mr. Jackson’s thin body, we can bury the unrealistically thin stereotype, and finally be content to become our personal best.

Dr. Abby Aronowitz is a psychologist, speaker and coach, who completed work at Columbia University. She holds two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. Previously a consultant to Weight Watchers International, Dr. Abby has been featured on and AOL Diet and Fitness. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and Mensa.


Recent Comments:

ama17@ 10:55am ET on July 13, 2009

I can't help but to feel sorry for Michael Jackson. Who actually knows what he suffered through? There's no one in the world who could relate to the amount of fame he received. To try to live under that pressure must've been so difficult... but it was all he knew from the start.

I'm tired of all these 'specialists' and 'medical experts' and talk show hosts alike reporting speculations... oh he hated himself so he would do THIS!

He's gone from us too soon. The only way we will know the truth of his death is when the toxicology reports come out. Until then, anyone's personal psychoanalysis shouldn't be broadcast to the world.

cjohnston @ 12:41pm ET on July 13, 2009

I don't read this as personal psychoanalysis - esp. as it's pretty much what everyone could see. He narrowed his focus to himself - irregardless of the reasons why, that's not even close to healthy for anyone. This site promotes a healthy lifestyle and the point of the article was that obsession with a distorted body image is destructive and can, and has, led to death. Good article.

Dear Gwen @ 2:32pm ET on July 13, 2009

How our parents treat us when we are children has a huge impact on how we see ourselves, and that doesn't go away just because we become adults. I believe Joe Jackson imposed impossible standards on Michael during his childhood which Michael internalized. Joe Jackson may not have been an active part of Michael's life in Michael's recent years, but Joe was alive and well inside the psyche of poor Michael, and I think this, to no small extent, contributed to Michael's lack of self acceptance. The demanding parent in his head never let up, and in the absence of other factors, such as a level-headed life partner to keep Michael grounded, he became more and more caught up in his self hatred. If Michael had had some true grounding, and some very intense psychotherapy, I believe he could have come to love himself in a way that would never have allowed him to treat his body as he did. I feel great compassion for Michael. The world will greatly miss his indescribable talent. Such a tragedy.

10lbsaway @ 5:23pm ET on July 13, 2009

I hate how I realize Michael Jackson's incredible talent AFTER he died, but he must have had SOME level of confidence in himself?? I mean, looking through all of his great achievements and how popular with the ladies he was for over three decades. Has there honestly been any guy hot enough to make women FAINT during concerts?!?!?! Man, he didn't realize how awesome he was. 12 people have even attempted suicide after he died!!!

DoctorAbby @ 10:56pm ET on July 13, 2009

Thanks to everyone for responding.

Of course we can't know the full story about how Mr. Jackson felt, or how he lived his life, but certain conflicts played out for all the world to see. Issues of perfectionism and control often accompany eating disorders, and his painfully thin body suggests that the history of bulimia may have morphed into a deadly thin arena.

Although body image issues suggest a lack of acceptance of his natural self, there was also great pride and grandiosity, evidenced by his self proclaimed status, "King of Pop," and naming his boys "Prince." This is the essence of conflict; seemingly competing issues existing simultaneously. Bulimia and other eating disorders often embody conflict; giving and taking away. Overeating and beating up oneself over it. Eating and then overexercising. Binging and purging.

We would all benefit from making peace with our "imperfect" selves, by doing our best most of the time, and offering the same kindness and acceptance we would offer to a friend, a child, or even a perfect stranger.

Then next time you say something mean to yourself about your body, ask if you would ever say this to someone else. Of course not, 'cuz it would be abusive! Likewise, how would you react if anyone else said those nasty, degrading things to you? You'd think they were assholes, right? So be kind to yourself, in the name of the King!

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