Mirror, Mirror in the Solarium: Learning from Karen Carpenter’s Death as an Act of Self-Love

Despite Karen Carpenter's very public, painful death due to complications from anorexia - we continue the cultural narrative of what a body "should" look like.

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You’ve probably seen the commercial by now: a shiny-haired blonde in perfectly fitting athletic clothes nails a tree pose while her cute black and white dog trots by in their pine forest solarium. She exhales as the ghost figure in the mirror encourages her. The Mirror is sold earnestly as a “personal fitness studio” with a “small footprint,” but in reality, it exploits our worst fears and insecurities about bodies.

Not only did the Greeks warn of getting lost in a mirror thousands of years ago, but we have modern day research that suggests the isolating nature of virtual reality and social networking is contributing to the increased loneliness of teenage girls. And who is also extremely susceptible to messaging about body image and what a body “should” look like? Also teenage girls.

In February 1983, 37 years ago this month, the dulcet-toned singing sensation Karen Carpenter died from complications of anorexia (she literally ingested so many laxatives to void her food contents that she had a heart attack and died), and it set off a tidal wave of national conversation about the seriousness and complexity of eating disorders.

Karen Carpenter was 19 when she and her brother Richard began to rise in fame as the Carpenters – and that was in 1969.  And even as a teenage girl in 1969, she still experienced the pressure of body-shame without the help of cell phones, virtual reality or social media.

In the end, Karen Carpenter’s body was so gaunt and so thin that she physically appeared like a skeleton (Google Karen Carpenter, and there’s a filter available actually called “skeletal”). Her body dysmorphia was so complex that when she looked in the mirror, her body appeared differently than reality.

For anyone who has even a basic understanding of eating disorders, they know that it’s not about food. It’s about the pain the person is suffering through and how controlling food intake (or otherwise) can relieve the pain for the moment. Karen is gone of course, and we can only speculate about what haunted her – but I think it’s safe to say that feeling uncomfortable in her body played a role.

And that’s because when it comes to our bodies, we are all set up to fail.

The unrelenting hurricane of messaging about our bodies and what they are “supposed” to look like received via commercials, social media and our own body norming/shaming has not let up in the 37 years she’s been gone from our national conversation. But perhaps if we dwelled more on Karen Carpenter’s death, we wouldn’t have a Peloton commercial scandal or the Mirror.

I am not exempt: I am no stranger to health and wellness fanaticism. I, like many people, received the message as I was growing up that my body wasn’t good enough, and I needed to shape it, starve it and exercise it to ensure I fit into the “right” size and the scale displayed the “right” numbers. But there was something about The Mirror that shook me awake from the cultural fantasy that we can carve our bodies to look like someone else’s.

The Mirror so blatantly exploits our infatuations with vanity (you’re literally entranced by a mirror), but does so without any sense of awareness. It’s pitched earnestly as if it’s ludicrous that you wouldn’t want to work out all by yourself in your greenhouse with the $1,500 Mirror attached to a wall.

While there has been some progress in the media in terms of showing a diversity of bodies, calling out The Biggest Loser, creating hit shows like Hulu’s Shrill and of course promoting Lizzo’s body-love panacea that we’ve all been craving, those examples are still noticeable as radically different than the norm. Karen Carpenter lived in a body that her eating disorder rendered not survivable. And yet that’s still the norm. No, not even a norm – an aspiration (you’re never too rich or too thin!)

I know what you fitness fanatics are going to say: obesity in the United States, diabetes, added sugars, allergies. But two things can be true at once: we can embrace health and wellness and we should have the chance to enjoy our bodies without someone telling us how much we need to pay to make it look like someone else’s. Health and wellness is not one-size-fits all and yet, we are constantly lulled into marketing tactics.

I mean, of course Jillian Michaels is going to denounce Lizzo: if we believe that health and wellness is achievable on our own terms, Jillian’s profit margin sinks.

There’s also an argument to be made about people who cannot access a gym due to safety, traumatic history or accessibility (physical or otherwise), but with the Mirror’s $1500+ price tag, monthly subscription fees ($39) and “white glove delivery,” any hopes of inclusivity for those groups turns rapidly into exclusivity.

So instead of learning from Karen Carpenter’s death, we allow these multimillion diet and fitness companies and the marketing tactics they use to play on our insecurities to profit mightily from the hysteria of thinness and body shaming.  The only way those companies continue to thrive is when we let them, through our unused subscriptions, our abandoned gym memberships and the freezer burn piling on our “low fat” chicken meals.

So let’s make a new resolution: let’s resolve to stop. Not stop health and wellness – but stop giving into the marketing tactics that take us for fools because it presses on our acculturated button to look a certain way. Let’s remember Karen’s struggle with her body and honor her by taking all that wasted money and reinvesting in your authenticity: the health and fitness you enjoy. Join that kickball team. Buy the organic fruit. Purchase that bikini you loved but were too embarrassed to wear. Go buy all of Lizzo’s albums and take a walk. It’s time to shed the power of marketing and body-shame and start all over. Or, as Karen might say: we’ve only just begun.

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