BOSTON — Arianna Huffington was full of one-liners during an appearance Monday night at Harvard during which she joked about her two daughters being in college “someplace else, in New Haven. Don’t hold it against us.”
But Huffington quickly settled down to the very serious subject that had brought her to Harvard for the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital’s annual body image forum. The event, which in the past has featured Michael Kors, Anna Wintour and other fashion and media figures, is meant to raise awareness of eating disorders. This year’s forum featured Huffington, Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani and model Doutzen Kroes, a last-minute fill-in for Amber Valletta, who was caught in Los Angeles filming her television show “Revenge.”
Huffington said both her daughters have suffered from eating disorders. She recalled noticing her daughter Isabella, at age 11, change her eating habits, eliminating carbohydrates, filling up on vegetables and increasing her exercise.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is what I try to do,’” Huffington said. “I missed that first sign.” When Isabella refused cake at her 12th-birthday party, Huffington took her to the pediatrician, who said she needed to gain 10 pounds in two months or be hospitalized. A month later, when Isabella had begun to gain weight, Huffington took her to a hair salon in London and was horrified to see the washbasin fill up with her daughter’s reddish hair. (Anorexia can cause hair loss.)
“That’s a moment I won’t ever forget,” Huffington told an audience of roughly 1,000 at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. “Even though she was starting to get better, we saw the delayed effects on her body.”
Huffington did not share the specifics of her daughter Christina’s eating disorders.
She said she has a tip jar in her newsroom where anyone who makes a body image comment — good or bad — has to drop in a dollar. The proceeds support Girls Inc., a nonprofit that works on female empowerment and increasing self-esteem.
Sozzani, who has held the Vogue Italia top post for 23 years, weighed in on her campaign to eliminate “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” sites, which promote anorexia and bulimia with tips on fasting, purging and hiding weight loss from parents and doctors. Some advise cutting yourself because the pain distracts from hunger. There are an estimated 300,000 such sites, mainly run by young women who post graphic, skeletal photos of themselves, every rib and vertebra showing. “Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease,” reads one. Some girls wear red bracelets (pro-ana) or blue (pro-mia) strung with a thin-bodied dragonfly charm so people who are proud of their eating disorders can recognize and encourage one another.
Sozzani collected 12,000 signatures in a petition against these sites, but said there are no legal grounds for forcing them to close. Some community sites, including Pintrest and Tumblr, have tried to crack down with “no self-harm” policies. Sozzani appealed to the audience, which was full of college-age women, to create “counter voices” promoting healthy images. She is planning a health-focused issue, featuring healthy women of all sizes. Her campaign against eating disorders has brought plenty of criticism — both from those who see the fashion industry as culpable in promoting extremism and from those who want to keep using images of certain frail models as “thinspiration.”
“Some people [in the eating-disorder community] say, ‘I will not buy your magazine,’” Sozzani reflected. “Well, if the choice is to be alive or read Vogue, fine, then be alive.”