It’s getting harder to laugh with some of the Modern Family cast, even though the jokes are still funny. Over the course of four seasons, the ABC comedy’s actresses have lost so much weight that TV viewers and critics now remark on Julie Bowen’s, Sarah Hyland’s, and Sofía Vergara’s tiny frames as regularly as they do on their storylines.
We have seen this story play out before: actresses succumbing to the pressures of a Hollywood standard of beauty that sometimes becomes unhealthy to live up to. In the ’90s, the set of Ally McBeal was the poster child for the problem, but actresses on Melrose Place and Friends also struggled with the images they were supposed to project. More recently, the bone-thin physiques of the young stars of 90210 got more attention than their roles on the CW reboot. Lea Michele also shed a noticeable amount of weight after she became a superstar during the first season of Glee, and Kat Dennings has slimmed down in the second season of 2 Broke Girls.
Producer Twentieth Century Fox Television declined to address the Modern Family weight issue. On that show, Bowen, an avid runner, gets the most attention for her skinny build. Hyland, who underwent a kidney transplant in April and has always had a petite frame, is thinner than ever. Vergara, known her whole career for her va-va-voom body, used to rebel against efforts to make her curves more subtle. But now she’s done just that. One of the men, Eric Stonestreet, also is losing weight, and the writers have incorporated it into his storyline.
“I have been watching in dismay and saying things to people who think I am overly sensitive to these issues as an eating-disorder therapist,” said Carolyn Costin, founder of Monte Nido Treatment Center in Malibu, Calif., and Eugene, Ore. “People have a right to lose weight. But somehow we have to find a way to make who people are—their talents and everything—more important than their size. And we don’t always give that message, especially to kids. They grow up watching shows like this and often get the message that the thinner people have the higher status. It’s so sad in that way.”
In other media, 2012 appeared to be the year of self-acceptance. On her HBO series Girls—and let’s not forget the Emmys telecast in the fall—Lena Dunham often refused to wear clothes and regularly exposed viewers to her extra pounds and fleshy thighs. On The Voice, Christina Aguilera shows off her ample curves in whatever tight, tiny outfit she pleases. After a decade of battling bulimia and anorexia, and months of being called out on her 25-pound weight gain, Lady Gaga went public with her body-image problems and joined the body revolution “to inspire bravery. And breed some motherfucking compassion.”
But the revolution clearly needs more soldiers like Jennifer Lawrence, who recently told Elle magazine that she will never starve herself for a role. “In Hollywood, I’m obese,” she said. “I’m considered a fat actress. I’m Val Kilmer in that one picture on the beach.” Fifteen years after Ally McBeal exposed the pressures TV actresses can feel to look the same week after week, Hollywood hasn’t budged in its expectations of them. Neither have the tabloids and celebrity-oriented magazines, which relentlessly track cellulite, flab, and weight fluctuations as if they were the stock market.
“All of us feel scrutinized by our peers, or we feel scrutinized when we see photographs and things like that, but these people have to live up to a photograph in a magazine where a little was taken from their side or a line was erased,” said Costin, who has treated many actresses for eating disorders and is the author of 8 Keys to Recovery From an Eating Disorder. “Then they go out in public and feel they have to match that. It’s hard for me to imagine, if I had to be in the public eye like that, having had an eating disorder myself. I don’t know if I could get well. I have so much empathy for people working in the limelight.”
Portia de Rossi, who became famous when she joined Ally McBeal in 1998, wrote a best-selling memoir in which she revealed that she had almost died when her organs began shutting down after years of battling anorexia and bulimia. In de Rossi’s poignant 2010 book, Unbearable Lightness, she described the internal pressure she felt to be as thin as the other actresses on the show, allowing herself a mere 300 calories a day. Courtney Thorne-Smith and Calista Flockhart also have publicly discussed the “extreme dieting” they engaged in.
“It was very difficult on many levels, because there were all these people on the show who would get into competition with each other and give each other dieting tips,” said Costin, who helped de Rossi recover. “There was always that thing about the camera adding 10 pounds and the enormous pressure not only to look good but to look the same. And then there were the dressing-room people. Portia said they’d bring all these clothes that were so small, and she couldn’t fit into them, and she’d feel guilty.”
Although Vergara has said she’s never felt self-conscious about her looks and figure, she has been open about the changes she had to make to transition from Spanish-language broadcasting to English. For one thing, she had to darken her naturally blond hair “to look more Latina,” and at one point she even considered a breast reduction. For years her management team recommended that she lose weight, she said during a 2009 Los Angeles Times interview.
“When they told me to lose weight, I was like, are they playing a joke on me?” Vergara said then. “I’ve always been known for my body! How can you tell me I’m fat? But, yeah, next to the other ladies I’m a whale.”
Not anymore. This season, the 40-year-old actress has been sporting a trimmer shape, which she has attributed to her new exercise regimen.
“She’s supposed to be the voluptuous one, so why would she want to be like the rest of them?” Costin said. “That doesn’t make any sense. She looked great, and no one should make her feel otherwise.”
Jessica Simpson has been lambasted this year for gaining too much weight during pregnancy and not losing it fast enough. The singer, who has signed on as a Weight Watchers spokeswoman, told USA Today in September: “My body is not bouncing back like a supermodel. I’m just your everyday woman who is trying to feel good and be healthy for her daughter, her fiancé, and herself.”
But that’s not how it usually goes in Hollywood, noted Robyn Silverman, a body-image expert and author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It.
“Beauty first; health is secondary,” she said. “If health doesn’t happen because you’re adhering to the standard of beauty, so be it. You’re in Hollywood, and it’s your job. We’ve given ourselves license as TV consumers that we’re allowed to make incredibly rude and snarky comments about other people because they’re supposed to embody the fantasy no matter what the circumstance is—puberty, pregnancy, getting older. God forbid we do any of that! That is the biggest challenge when it comes to the Hollywood actress.”