I've always liked Maria Menounos. "Liked" meaning that tepid affection you feel for a total stranger you know on a strictly televised basis. As a silence-fearing single apartment dweller, I've inadvertently followed her career through the years as episodes of Entertainment Tonight, Extra, and Access Hollywood have provided background noise to laundry folding and nail painting. Menounos has always struck me as a fairly likable on-air personality, ranking low on the irritation scale. Maybe I just felt a kinship to a fellow multisyllabically-named journalist.
Naïve and blinded by my lukewarm fondness for Menounos, I was excited to discover her recent contribution to xoJane, titled "I'm Maria Menounos, and Almost Dying Led Me to Finally Get Healthy." The subhead to her piece sent chills down my spine: "In college I was 40 pounds heavier. But it was when I was skinny that I had the most serious health crisis of my life."
This is it, I stupidly thought. Finally -- someone is coming forward to speak the truth about the ever-shrinking standards set for women in the media. A female broadcaster is fearlessly telling us what it's really like behind the scenes, and why we're being lied to every time a magazine editor/celebrity trainer/self-proclaimed nutrition expert hocks 1,200-calorie diets and detox cleanses. Someone who's spent years in front of a scrutinizing, unforgiving camera is here to break it down and once and for all deconstruct the myth that losing weight invariably equates to gaining health.
Wrong! Of course. As jaded and cynical as the media has taught me to be, I still have fleeting moments of blissful ignorance. But as I read through Menounos's words and waited... and waited... and waited for the moment of epiphany, the moment for her to debunk the diet myths, to articulate why thinness is not always unequivocally the key to better health, why genetics, metabolism, and a trillion other factors impact a person's weight, shape, and well-being... I got nothing.
Well no, to be fair, I got a fairly lengthy manifesto against the potentially fatal effects of an all-fast food regimen, a plug for Menounos's new diet book, and a full-length photo depicting the author's washboard stomach and toned limbs with the caption, "Not just thin, but healthy, too." Ugh.
I can't help but be disappointed every time someone in the spotlight, with the opportunity to rail against the inaccuracies and false promises of the diet industry and media machine, just perpetuates the same lies we've been told for decades: That thinness is equivalent to healthiness, that the ectomorph body type is an attainable goal for anyone to reach with enough discipline and effort, that you can actually see what health looks like because it materializes in invariable physical characteristics like taut abs and thigh gaps.
And let me be clear -- I don't think it's Menounos's fault, necessarily. The small, unjaded part of my brain believes that she and other well-meaning celebrities really do intend to help others by sharing their personal experiences and struggles (though who's to say some of those experiences and struggles haven't been embellished or fabricated by crafty publicists and ghostwriters? Sorry -- jaded brain parts dominate sometimes).
But no, I don't hold Menounos completely accountable for the misguided marketing of the book. It's the implied (and, as with the xoJane piece, blatantly overt) association between good health and thinness that makes my skin crawl. It's a confusing, contradictory message -- love and respect your body, but always strive to shrink/shape/improve its appearance in an everlasting effort to emulate one specific genetic predisposition.
Menounos earnestly attempts to appropriate the self-acceptance ethos with one of the final lines of her xoJane excerpt: "It's about living a healthy life -- with the wonderful byproduct being that 'better body.' Just because you are thinner, does not mean you are healthier." But it's hard to accept the authenticity of her words when they're followed up by the bikinied glamour shot. It's impossible not to assume that when she and her whittled waist recently appeared on The View in a sports bra and demonstrated the effectiveness of tricep dips to Sherry Shepherd (with a healthy dose of side-eye from Jenny McCarthy) that she was selling her look along with her book.
Is Menounos healthier now than she was at her jaw-dropping, scale-tipping, morbidly obese weight of ONE HUNDRED SIXTY POUNDS (still waiting for the invention of the sarcasm font)? Sure, maybe. Is a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods more likely to bring about positive health changes than a daily McDonald's habit? Yes, for the love of God, go see Fed Up. Will buying Menounos's book and following her EveryGirl tips to a tee guarantee the reader a six-pack and sample-size waist? And if not, has the "EveryGirl" Menounos is targeting failed at realizing her health goals? And who are we talking about when we talk about the EveryGirl?
In an unrelated but somewhat similar case of puzzling labels, Miss USA contestant Mekayla Diehl caused a social media frenzy this week when she strutted across the stage in her swimsuit. "Dear #MissIndiana thank you for looking like an average woman. #SwimsuitCompetition," read one tweet. "We love that Miss Indiana sported her stunning 'normal' body at this years #MissUSA2014," read another.
My perspective may be skewed after years of writing about body image, but in what universe is Diehl -- a MISS USA BEAUTY PAGEANT CONTESTANT -- "average" or "normal"? I wholeheartedly agree that Diehl's body is beautiful and different from the forever-shrinking frames we generally see in the media. But the reality is that Diehl is still a slim size four. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not. But what makes her body type "normal" or "average"? Why single her out for having an "attainable" shape? Yes, for some women, Diehl's body is a realistic frame to emulate -- for others, it's not. Some women will never have Diehl's curves, no matter how many lunges and squats they do. Some women will never be able to diet down to Diehl's proportions without risking their health. Diehl is gorgeous -- but she's not "average."
But back to Menounos. I want to believe that her book is a genuine effort to guide "EveryGirls" in their journeys toward better health. I hope the readers who shell out $13.50 for the guide come away with tools to nourish their bodies, enjoy exercise, and feel phenomenal. But I also wish they could learn those lessons without Menounos's bra-topped promotional blitz and the ridiculous before and after pictures on the book's cover (next to yet another close-up of those abs). While her 160-pound "before" is meant to represent her gluttonous, uninformed former self, it's a cruel, careless, untrue insinuation that women who look like that aren't average "EveryGirls" and that they can't possibly already be their healthiest selves. The notorious bikini-sporting "after" is just adding insult to injury.
At the time of this writing, Menounos's xoJane piece has 576 comments (the first of which being a well-liked, "I cannot wait to see how the comments shape up, y'all"). Her misguided words struck a chord with the site's specific audience, but her book will unquestionably be a bestseller. And I want to continue to feel the same detached, moderate warmth toward Menounos that I felt before I was so intimately acquainted with her midsection, so I'll be happy for her success. But I'll continue to wish that her next attempt at guiding the EveryGirl acknowledges and embraces the realistic spectrum of what "EveryGirls" actually look like.
And I'll continue to hope that as a society, we all let go of terms like "average" and "normal" and just embrace health, happiness, and beauty -- no matter what shape those attributes take.
This post originally appeared on the author's website, www.michellekmedia.com.