Eating Disorders and Editorials: The Transformative Power of Fashion Photography

Young white woman in black dress pointing a camera at another young white woman in a black dress
Kalaija and Cassidy. Photograph taken by Zack Henningsgaard

When I was growing up, my rose-pink bedroom walls were plastered in pages I’d rip out from fashion magazines like Elle, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. Images of slender white women garbed in creations by Diane von Furstenberg, Karl Lagerfeld, Vera Wang, and Miuccia Prada prompted my creativity. I’d pour over these photographs, sketching my own looks and watching them come to life on the runway of my imagination.

I’d watch America’s Next Top Model and pose in the mirror during commercial breaks to practice for the next photoshoot. I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with the intense competition, but I knew that my talent and devotion to fashion would shine through the pressure and anxiety. Modeling was a dream unrealized, a goal for the future.  

Fashion and modeling were my inspiration at first, but they transformed into a sinister force that exacerbated the negative relationship I had with my body during adolescence. My evolving relationship with fashion photography begins with love, slides into tragedy, and blossoms again through friendship.

Like most girls growing up in a society over-saturated with media representations of beauty, bodies, and the “ideal woman,” I questioned my worth and value in comparison to these images. They contributed to my distorted self-perception, serving as kindling to my eating disorder. Everyone finds their own healing process, but mine was reinventing theses images with my best friend Kalaija by staging our own photoshoots; a process that allowed us to be participants in a narrative that preferred us to be voyeurs.

Cultural theorists, psychologists, and scholars have long debated the role of visual images of thinness and its effect on young people’s perceptions of their bodies. Wendy Spettigue and Katherine A. Henderson note several studies in their article, “Eating Disorders and the Role of Media,” that reveal a direct correlation between media exposure and disordered eating, body insecurities, and their negative impact. Instead of writing about the relationship between media and eating disorders, Anne E. Becker and Paul Haumburg focus on the forces that make people with eating disorders feel motivated to change their bodies in their article “Culture, the Media, and Eating Disorders.”

My own experience with having an eating disorder reflects this convoluted relationship between pop culture, patriarchy, and capitalism. There was no clear cause of my neurosis, as it reflected a myriad of circumstances that were both structural and deeply personal. But the pervasiveness of hyper-thin, photoshopped bodies that graced the pages of the fashion magazines I adored created a tangible cause-and-effect for my restrictive diet. I wanted to be thin. I also wanted to disappear.

But before I could understand the role of cultural media in my eating disorder, all I had was my love of fashion and the photography that sought to capture it.  

 The magazine editorials taped on my wall that were once the source of my creative visions became thinspiration. I compared my adolescent body to the women I saw on the shiny pages, measuring the size of my waist, my legs, my arms against theirs. My mother watched me cry over not being thin or tall enough to compete in modeling competitions.

My mental health spiraled as I engaged in restrictive eating behavior and excessive exercise. The first year of high school was characterized by body-checking, obsessing over what I ate, and binging and purging on the weekends. Yet still I watched movies like The Devil Wears Prada and dreamed of being a designer, model, or fashion editor living in New York City.

Six months into my freshman year of high school, I dropped out and was hospitalized because of my high-risk of having a fatal arrhythmia. After a week of sponge baths and bland cafeteria food, my mom admitted me into an in-patient house for young girls with eating disorders. This is where I met my best friend Kalaija. She arrived at the center a few days after me, walking into the community dining area wearing a beanie, an oversized shirt, sweatpants, and Ray Ban sunglasses.

At first glance, we were opposites. My wardrobe consisted of tight, hyper-feminine clothing that featured bows, faux pearls, and ruffles; the pastel “couture” section of Forever 21. A stark contrast to her comfy and “fuck-it” attitude.

But we shared common ground: we both loved fashion photography and hated our bodies.

My aloof and reserved demeanor was a challenge to her outgoing and extroverted nature. There were less than six other girls living in the house at the time, which made it difficult for me to hide from social interactions. One day, while working on a puzzle that depicted a New England seascape during autumn, I played Florence + the Machine from my iPod on the recovery home’s speakers. Her face lit up as she said, “I love Florence!” I felt a chip of my exterior detach from my fear of socializing. I smiled and replied, “Isn’t she great?”

It was an instant connection, and we’d spend all our free time together, talking or working on creative projects like collaging and drawing. We’d walk side by side on the evening strolls with a staff member, slightly in front or behind the other girls, cracking jokes and holding our stomachs from laughing so hard.

The summer after we left treatment, we listened to Florence + the Machine as Kalaija drove us through the windy roads towards the Oregon coastal town, Florence. The trunk of her Toyota Corolla was stuffed with clothes, makeup, props, and cameras for our first photoshoot. We sang the lyrics to our favorite songs as the chilly air of a forest drenched in fog filled the car with shivers and potential.

When we first begin taking pictures together, I wouldn’t let Kalaija photograph my face. I felt self-conscious and unsure of how to express myself through my eyes, my lips, the direction of my jawline. In honor of this initial pattern in our work, Kalaija has an album on Flickr called “The Back of Cassidy’s Head in Various Places.”

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Examples from the series “The Back of Cassidy’s Head in Various Places.” Photographs by Kalaija Mallery.

My shy body language, and discomfort being in front of the camera is starkly contrasted with my former confidence when I’d pretend to pose for America’s Next Top Model. Learning to re-love my body, something I’d never lost but only temporarily forgotten, was a process that took time. The experiences that Kalaija and I shared allowed me to trust her portrayal of me. I knew she would represent me in a way that was whole and authentic.

Pop music was helpful to loosen my physical and mental rigidity. Marina and the Diamond’s Electra Heart and Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster were two albums we had on repeat throughout the summers we’d spend together. We’d blast the catchy songs in our cars, yelling the lyrics at the top of our lungs. We’d dance to them in our rooms or use them as inspiration during photoshoots.

We loved our pop princesses, adored the personas they constructed to reflect and critique popular culture. In our photoshoots, we emulated Marina’s satirized starlet who was “obsessed with the mess of America,” avoided heartbreak by being emotionally unavailable, and emulated the excessive hyper-capitalist lifestyle while simultaneously resenting it.

We listened to Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster to channel our inner pop divas who were daring in their expression of high-fashion. One of the first photographs I let Kalaija take of my face was directly inspired by Lady Gaga’s iconic song “Bad Romance.” The upbeat tempo, paired with lyrics about thrilling love, served as the backdrop to our longing to be bold in our demands for attention and adoration.  

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Photoshoots inspired by our favorite pop artists. Photographs by Kalaija Mallery and Cassidy Scanlon.

The more Kalaija and I visited one another, the more photoshoots we’d conceptualize and execute. There was no need for a magazine to hire us, for someone to create the concept and manifest the vision. We were our own makeup artists, wardrobe specialists, and creative directors. Until Kalaija went to art school years later, we didn’t have studio spaces or expensive lighting equipment. We used natural light, beautiful landscapes, and the resources of our boundless imaginations.

We were drawn to concepts and locations that can be described as stereotypically feminine from a patriarchal lens: vast and ominous natural scenes, fairy tales, the teen queens of the ’90s and early 2000s chick flicks, goddesses and myths. Our curiosity about the mystic beauty of mythology reflected our desire to understand the mysterious relationship we had with our own bodies. The secrets of acceptance, happiness, and contentment were slowly revealed as we pushed one another to capture the enigma of our beautiful, contradictory experiences.

Even in this process, we often ran into examples of other people’s work that resembled ours but differed in their public reception. Kalaija would rant about photographers like Petra Collins and Tamara Lichtenstein, women who took pictures of their femme friends in candid or posed frames which had thousands of likes on Tumblr and Flickr. They made money from their photographs, established careers from images of women that seemed to reflect the patriarchal ideal.

We couldn’t understand why some people were monetarily successful while others weren’t. Were we doing it wrong? Were our images not good enough? Or did they just not cater to the social and cultural expectations that fashion photography is supposed to fulfill?

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Photographs that reflect our obsessions with the secrets, mysteries, and mythologies of women and feminized topics. Photographs by Kalaija Mallery and Cassidy Scanlon.

While intuitively aware of the sexist power dynamics present in the fashion industry as a teenager, I didn’t have the words to articulate it until I went to college and engaged with feminist cultural studies. Kalaija and I watched the documentary Miss Representation, a film directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom that included interviews and analysis of how media portrayals of women reflect and reaffirm gender inequity.

We paused the film often, yelling about how accurately it spoke to our own experiences. It marked a turning point in the way we related to our art. We knew too much to continue our naïve exploration of our bodies through a lens that was coded with misogynistic visual language.

Our newfound knowledge articulated our previous intuitive understanding of these power dynamics. We understood that being an adolescent girl growing up in a male-dominated society was a dangerous and inevitably traumatizing experience. I learned early on how to see myself from another’s gaze, but I never had language to explain it. Naomi Wolf explores this idea in her book The Beauty Myth:

“The books and films [girls] see survey from the young boy’s point of view his first touch of a girl’s thighs, his first glimpse of her breasts…Since their bodies are seen from the point of view of strangeness and desire, it is no wonder that what should be familiar, felt to be whole, become estranged and divided into parts.”

This fragmented and divided perspective characterized my struggles with accepting my body. When I’d survey my body in the mirror, I’d zoom in on various parts of it, clutching my thighs, grabbing the fat of my stomach, stretching the skin on my upper arm. My desire to be thin reflected the heterosexual man’s sexual desire for women: to see them, to touch their various parts, and to want them in a way that’s shattered and unreflective of their wholeness.

While our body of work never explicitly followed this visual trend, critical studies forced us to view fashion photography from a grown-up lens, one that dissipated the former magic it once held for us.

When studying the archives of our photographs, the shift is obvious. Instead of focusing on aesthetically pleasing images as we did before, Kalaija directed me to be confrontational and ugly. We embraced the monstrosity of fashion, visually and conceptually. This period of time didn’t last long, and we quickly fell out of our habitual photoshoots when we visited one another. We became hypercritical, even depressed, about the ways sexist visual language was inescapable. How does one make art when the tools are made for someone and something else?

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Photographs of our later years, once we became aware of the sexist power dynamics embedded in visual language. Photographs Kalaija Mallery and Cassidy Scanlon.

We learned in treatment that recovery is a journey. And this was a dramatic plunge back into a mindset that was primarily negative. But it didn’t reflect the self-loathing and self-hating version of our eating disorders. It was a rebirth, after a painful but necessary death. We moved on from our preoccupation with fashion photography to explore other modes of expression: writing, painting, non-fashion photography, videography. Our former medium, one we once thrived in, reached its peak.

We often think of the pinnacle as the initial stage of descent, and in some ways, this is true for us. But it’s also a moment of exhilaration and infinite possibility. I am reminded of the many times Kalaija and I hiked the mountains of her hometown Eugene, Oregon. She would lead the way, carrying a knapsack of water and snacks while I struggled to hike uphill, asthma forcing me to take shallow and weak breaths. After a laborious journey, we reached the top and stopped to stare at the wide expanse before us.

Pine trees unfolded for miles, as birds soared above our heads. We’d wait a few minutes before snapping a photograph, entranced by the natural beauty before us. A camera couldn’t capture the feeling of being so far above ground, the wind cooling the heat behind our necks, and the reward of a difficult trek.

Those are the moments I think of when trying to articulate Kalaija and I’s friendship: a feeling too complex, too emotional to be captured in a two dimensional art form. Our photographs collected only a glimpse of it, an intimacy that manages to translate its importance to the viewer, even through a limited, visual form.

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