Spice Girl, Miss America Speak Up

Justin H. Haan

Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell speaks about body image and eating disorders at the Harvard Eating Disorder Center’s annual event.

Geri Halliwell, formerly known as Ginger Spice of the 1990s Britband sensation the Spice Girls, last night joined the 2003 Miss America and a child psychiatrist at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center’s annual forum to discuss body image, eating disorders and the public gaze.

“This is not about fat, it’s about fear,” Halliwell said at the forum at the Gutman Conference Center at the Graduate School of Education, entitled “Image: From the Inside Looking Out.”

Halliwell said eating disorders were not merely an issue of weight, but of self-perception.

“A pat on the back is six inches away from a stick up the arse,” she said, describing how self-congratulation after morning weigh-ins was nothing but a “dangerous cycle of self-validation.”

Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, and Rebecca Knapp, assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, also spoke frankly on grappling with eating disorders and self-image issues.

“I don’t have any answers about the issue of body image, only experience,” Halliwell said as preface to her speech. “I’ve had all three [eating disorders]—anorexia, bulimia and overeating.”

At the beginning of her speech, Halliwell promised “scary and honest confessions.”

She delivered by admitting with shame that her 10-year smoking habit, which she kicked only last year, was founded on a belief that cigarette consumption would suppress her appetite.

She also said that at the height of her Spice Girls slimness, she would “feel superior to bigger girls,” and that the “shady dancing and modeling” she did in her later teenage years made her realize “the power of the body—a power that could sometimes be destructive.”

Although Halliwell dismissed the media as prime culprit of the eating disorder epidemic among young girls, saying that “I’m the first to pick up a gossip magazine, so I’m not going to judge anyone,” the other speakers were not so quick to exonerate magazines and other news outlets.

Knapp, who spoke of her sister’s 10-year struggle with anorexia, drew a direct causal link.

“The media tells us the female body is flawed,” she said, pointing to a passage in her sister’s memoir, “Appetites: Why Women Want,” which describes the author’s reaction to a post-pregnancy Elle Macpherson on a Shape magazine cover as akin to “goddess worship.”

“Magazines tell us, ‘Thou shalt feel shitty about ourselves,’” Knapp said to laughter in an otherwise sobering recollection of a disease that “rendered my sister voiceless.”

Harold, who focused on the way she said she has tried to present a positive image of womanhood in the media following her crowning as Miss America, echoed Knapp’s emphasis on image.

She said she took conscious steps in her public presentations to influence positively the way the members of her audiences think about themselves.

She described how she always tries to eat at ceremonial luncheons so that success will not be equated with starvation.

“I say to girls I meet, if you want me to help you with a college application, great. But if you want me to show you how to use mascara, forget it,” Harold said. “Beauty has to be backed up with something more substantial.”

Whether concerned with the detrimental effects of the media or mascara, all three speakers returned finally to the theme of eating disorder as cipher for more deeply-rooted emotional issues.

Knapp spoke of her sister’s hunger as an “agent of denial” for family love she felt was withheld in childhood, while Harold said her multi-ethnic background led to painful schoolyard taunts.

Halliwell, who dismissed a question from the audience which alluded to her allegedly tumultuous relationship with the other Spice Girls as a possible catalyst for her eating problems, said, “It’s so easy to blame somebody. But ultimately I realized the self-loathing driving my image issues was really just pride in reverse.”

The forum was co-sponsored by the Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach at the College, the Graduate School of Education and the Office of the Dean of Students at the Law School.

—Staff writer Amelia E. Lester can be reached at lester@fas.harvard.edu.