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Actresses show a lot of skinny

September 17, 2008 |  4:49 pm

902104_k6y7cfnc Here’s a news flash — young actresses these days are very, very thin. Reporting live from in front of their television sets, the editors of Entertainment Weekly and Us Weekly are shocked, shocked to discover that several female members of the cast of “90210” appear to have last eaten some time during the fifth grade. Since then, Jessica Stroup (who plays Silver, right in photo) and Shenae Grimes (Annie) have apparently subsisted on iced coffee and breath strips.

There is no denying that Stroup and Grimes look more than a little frightening — you have to wonder if the show’s producers tried to save money by casting by the pound. But it’s a bit disingenuous, not to mention tedious, for the entertainment press, which produces no greater praise than when a star sheds baby weight or other unsightly poundage, to dutifully trot out experts wringing their hands and disgorging boilerplate about the specter of an eating-disorder epidemic.

For one thing, unless you have the misfortune to be an aspiring actress, most eating disorders usually have roots far deeper and more complicated than wanting to look like Jenny on “Gossip Girl.” Despite years of television’s attempt to pare women down to skin and bones, we are in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic; even the Gap carries size 16 nowadays.

“90210” is unusual only in its choice to buck tradition. Historically, the skeletalization of women on an ensemble show has followed a pandemic model — one horrifyingly thin actress (Calista Flockhart, Courteney Cox, Lara Flynn Boyle) “infects” the rest of the cast until by, say, Season 3, all of the women are shopping for negative sizes. And it seems a little unfair to pick on the newbies when over at “Grey’s Anatomy,” Ellen Pompeo remains so slender she makes Katherine Heigl seem heavy, and America Ferrera has lost so much weight, it looks as if they have to pad her to play her average-sized character on “Ugly Betty.”

Their talent isn’t thin
In fact, more shocking than the sight of today’s waif-like 20-year-olds are the ranks of underfed fortysomethings who star in some of the most critically acclaimed shows on television. Kyra Sedgwick of “The Closer” and Holly Hunter of “Saving Grace” are two of the more talented human beings on the planet — and if you put them together, you might be able to fill out a pair of size 8 Lucky Brand jeans. Hunter especially is so thin that whenever she takes off her shirt, which she does quite a lot, you can feel the sweat of a thousand reps rise off your own skin. The ladies of “Desperate Housewives” are so far gone in terms of resembling humans that it’s almost laughable to mention them, but even Felicity Huffman, self-described former “fat girl,” has lost so much weight that when she wears those plunging necklines you can count her ribs.

Much was made of how terrific the “Sex and the City” gals looked in their big-screen debut, but when Sarah Jessica Parker appeared whippet thin in skimpy pajamas, the value of body fat on a woman older than 40 was instantly and abundantly clear — do we really want to be able to identify whole muscle groups in the middle of a cuddle scene? Probably not.

For years, feminists have insisted that the paring down of women on television is political, that as women gain social and economic power, society attempts to achieve some sort of balance by belittling them. Literally.

Me, I think it comes down to the tyranny of the tank top.

When did it become mandatory for every actress, no matter what her age or natural body type, to look good in a teeny-tiny tank top? Not just good, but good enough to wear them on television. In every episode of whatever show they’re starring in. Cops in tank tops, lawyers in tank tops, fashion editors and stay-at-home moms. You know why the women of “Mad Men” look so fabulous? Because they don’t have to wear a freaking tank top.

What first appeared as adorable sleepwear on shows like “Friends” now has become de rigueur for any situation, on women of any age. Both Hunter’s Grace and Sedgwick’s Brenda live in T-tees and sleeveless dresses. Over on HBO’s “True Blood,” poor Anna Paquin is wearing tanks so wee they look like toddlers’ undershirts. “Weeds” is set in Southern California, so at least Mary-Louise Parker’s Nancy Botwin has an excuse for all those spaghetti straps and baby-doll dresses, but the ladies of “Lipstick Jungle” huddle over their lattes in sleeveless silk and linen, never mind that it’s autumn in New York and sleeting.

Seriously, it may be the most oppressive instrument of fashion since the chastity belt. Yes, Linda Hamilton looked great when she buffed up for “Terminator 2,”  but those biceps were necessary to save the world. Wouldn’t it be better for actors to spend time working on, say, their Southern accents than doing endless sets of pull-ups? Do we really want a generation of women with arms like Madonna?

You would think that producers would lighten up a little and let the tank top go. Or at least acknowledge that a woman can be sassy and attractive and still wear long sleeves (or even short sleeves).

For one thing, it would probably cut down on all the on-set drama. When you haven’t eaten in 17 days, when whatever free time you have is spent lifting free weights, when you face a wardrobe full of clothing designed for a 12-year-old, it’s hard not to be a seem a little “difficult.”

But, more important, a move away from tank-top skinny would improve the general aesthetic of television. The current cavalcade of wafer-thin, over-toned and stringy women can be quite depressing to watch. You worry too much about their general health. Are they smoking too much? Taking those weird Chinese herbs that are really just natural speed? Do they not remember when Jamie-Lynn Sigler almost had to quit “The Sopranos” because she got too thin?

The real problem with the eating-challenged actresses of “90210” is not that they’re going to jump-start a cult of anorexia but that they’re going to ruin their own show. How can you, the viewer, concentrate on the drama of the story if you’re worrying that Grimes and Stroup will literally collapse before your eyes?

-- Mary McNamara

Photo: The CW