^^ ember of the brother-sister duo "The Carpenters," Karen Carpenter achieved an iconic status in twentieth-century North American popular culture. Not only was she a Grammy- and Academy Award-winning recording artist, she also embodied a grim message regarding celebrity and the pursuit of thinness. In 1967, Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard Carpenter signed with RCA records, and by 1971, they embarked on their first world tour. The new pressure to maintain a certain public image as a thin celebrity forced Carpenter to reexamine her physical appearance. She believed that although she had talent, she needed to embrace a more feminine image, which at the time was thin and waif-like.
As a child, Carpenter was not overly thin; in fact, her own brother recalled her as a "chubby teenager." As her career threw her further into the spotlight, she began to become obsessed with her weight. She lost 20 pounds after a doctor placed her on a water diet. Not satisfied with the initial weight loss, she used laxatives, thyroid medication, and purging the little food that she ate. The rapid loss of weight weakened Carpenter and eventually led to her collapsing on stage in 1975. She was only twenty-five years old and at the time was down to 80 lbs.
Though the media had already begun to comment that Carpenter looked too thin, her collapse solidified her illness in the public's mind. She took some time off from performing and regained some of the weight that she had lost. However, the years of medications and malnourish-
ment had weakened her heart. In 1983, at the age of thirty-three, she died of heart failure. This was both alarming and eye-opening for the public who thought that since she had gained weight, she was healthy again. Her dieting, highly visible weight loss, and dramatic death in 1983 drew anorexia nervosa into popular discourse and shaped the ways in which eating disorders continue to be represented and understood.
Carpenter's death was a major catalyst for the constitution of eating disorders as a public health issue (Brumberg 1988; Young 2006). Rapidly following her death, media coverage boomed and other celebrities "came out" about their eating disorders. This moment marked the dawn of support groups and specialized clinics for eating disorders (Young 2006). With public knowledge and acceptance of the disease anorexia nervosa came funding for treatment and research into the causes of the disease. Carpenter's death came at a time when the after-school special on television could be used to deliver messages to teenagers of the perils of public health issues like smoking, drinking, drug use, and anorexia. Her story was made into a made-for-television movie, entitled The Karen Carpenter Story by Joseph Sargent in 1989 with Cynthia Gibb as Karen. The popularity of the film heightened public interest in her story and dramatically increased sales of her albums.
See also Anorexia; Celebrities; Cheyne; Developing World; Hornby; Metabolism; Smoking
Was this article helpful?