Kim Kardashian holds the gaze of hundreds of millions of girls and teenagers across the world. Everything she says or does inspires action in young women everywhere: Buy this! Make your brows thicker! Now thinner! Dream about a 5-carat ring! Now just a gold band!
When Kim arrived at this year’s Met Gala in the iconic “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress worn by Marilyn Monroe at JFK’s birthday in 1962, every article about the sparkly gold number had this Kim quote affixed to it: “I tried it on and it didn’t fit me. I had three weeks and I had to lose 16 pounds.”
These words — most startlingly “I had three weeks and I had to lose 16 pounds” — are now imprinted in the minds and hearts of millions of young people, not to mention the 600+ million who struggle with an eating disorder.
We know that a moment like this one can be the trigger that sets off an eating disorder in someone who is genetically predisposed — it’s not so dissimilar to what happened to me when I copied my babysitter and started a diet that led to anorexia at the age of 10.
“No one changes their eating or exercise habits with the intent to develop an eating disorder,” says Jennifer Derenne MD, Equip’s VP of Clinical Care Delivery and former Stanford psychiatrist. “But, for a young person who is already vulnerable, prom or graduation may be their version of the Met Gala.” And with eating disorders having the second highest mortality rate of any mental illness, these seemingly small moments can create the highest possible stakes.
We know that no one person, experience, or event causes an eating disorder, and we also know that icons like Kim Kardashian shape the unattainable, harmful ideals that can send young people into a tailspin that leads to an eating disorder. This will happen to 5 million Americans, including kids as young as 7, this year alone.
The theme of this year’s Met Gala, “Gilded Glamour” is eerily apt. It captures what this moment really meant for our society: In America, our narrow idea of beauty asks our younger generation to place value on certain body ideals, and the famous women who embody them. Our culture tells us that you must get there at any cost — even if that includes your mental health, your self-worth, or tragically, your life itself.
This isn’t Kim’s fault. It’s society’s fault. She, too, is a victim of our culture and its praise of behaviors that are also the symptoms of an eating disorder — rapid weight loss, restriction of food, excessive exercise, and fixation on the thin ideal. But this is not about blame, it’s about change. Kim has the power to fundamentally shift the conversation from teaching young people to believe “I am valuable because of how I look” to “I am valuable because of who I am.”
Kristina Saffran is the CEO of Equip, a virtual eating disorder treatment program