Lindsay Lohan, actress and pop music star, has been dominating the headlines the last couple of weeks with news of her alleged drunk driving accident, drug addiction, and second stint in rehab within the year. Lohan joins the ranks of other young, hot celebrities caught under the influence acting stupid. Paris Hilton --her peer in pop-- managed to make it to the MTV Music Awards red carpet right before finally serving her much-covered jail sentence for violating parole.
It would be easy to write off the emaciated string of young pop stars falling into disease, drugs, and arrest as just more rich girl antics. The conventional wisdom is that these girls are just representative of an elite class of Hollywood insiders who have more money and fame than they know what to do with. End of sensationalistic Entertainment Tonight story.
But this viewpoint is outdated and inaccurate. The sheer volume of celebrity illegality, and the specifically female faces behind the mug shots, is indicative of the new normalcy of addiction for young women--of all classes, cultures, and locales--in this country. It is time that the dwindling state of young women's mental health stop being treated as outrageous titillation, and start being seen as grounds for serious outrage.
Don't get me wrong, there is a whole nation of young women doing incredible work. We outnumber men on college campuses by two million and rising every year. We hold more offices in student government and are more likely to have taken AP biology and chemistry than our male peers. I recently interviewed over 100 women between the ages of 9 and 30, for my book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and was consistently amazed at the work ethic and good works of the women I spoke with.
But underneath the Pollyanna story of our high achievement is an ugly underbelly. We are more diseased and more addicted than any generation of young women that has come before. Perhaps in the face of all of this pressure and perfectionism, we are succumbing to dangerous emotional numbs -- eating disorders, binge drinking, and even harder drugs.
Seven million women and girls in this country have diagnosed eating disorders and countless others participate in eating disordered behavior. According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, 15 million girls and women use illicit drugs and misuse prescription drugs, 32 million smoke cigarettes and six million are alcohol abusers. In fact, misuse of controlled prescription drugs is even higher among girls (14.1 percent) than boys (12.8 percent). CASA confirms the strong link between eating disorders and alcohol abuse: up to one-half of individuals with eating disorders abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, compared to nine percent of the general population, and up to 35 percent of alcohol or illicit drug abusers have eating disorders compared to three percent of the general population.
Risk-taking behavior is no longer the purview of the "bad boy." From 1977 to 2000, there was a 13 percent increase in the number of women drivers involved in fatal, alcohol-related crashes, compared to a 29 percent decrease for male drivers. Despite the mixed messages of dwindling women like Nicole Ritchie, who seems to admit to being sick one day and deny it vehemently the next, eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice. They are deadly diseases. Anorexia, in fact, is the most deadly psychological disease in existence. A quarter of those who have it will never recover.
Entertainment media, and even mainstream news programs, are making a circus out of these young pop stars' dissolving lives -- highlighting them as the richest and the prettiest freaks of nature. In truth, they are characteristic of a generation plagued by mental distress. Lohan's very public disaster is representative of thousands of young women --in Ohio and Okalahoma and Oregon-- who are trying to find themselves, albeit in very lost ways.
The public must insist that the media stop glamorizing young celebrities' antics. Turn off the celebrity shows and leave the tabloids on the stands. Consumers are the ones making these Hollywood rags rich off of the mental illness and addiction of young pop stars.
Write letters to your newspapers and networks asking for serious reportage of young women and addiction, not the latest rich kid scandal. We need to educate the public about the real dangers of addiction and eating disorders, not continue to show Versace's disappearing daughter on a mindless loop. Public education campaigns and comprehensive wellness education are in order, not another shock-and-awe story on Access Hollywood about the anorexic twins.
The judicial system must hold these girls responsible for their pathetically poor choices. After all, their behavior is not only self-destructive but contributes to the destruction of the way a nation of girls frames their limits and possibilities. Sentencing Paris Hilton to 45 days in jail is a good start. Ritchie faces drunk driving charges, and Lohan, if proven guilty, should join her shortly.
There must be truth and there must be consequences. Without both we are nation doomed to grow bloated on our celebrity news as our daughters disappear.
Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. She is also an adjunct professor of gender studies at Hunter College.