Calista Flockhart says scrutiny of her weight nearly ended her career. Is now so different?

The Ally McBeal star rose to fame when women’s bodies were under a constant spotlight

The late 1990s and early 2000s may stand out as a particularly noxious period for women – replete with a celeb mag culture that drove Britney Spears to breakdown; the milieu that deemed young Kate Winslet and Renée Zellweger almost too-fat-for-Hollywood; the denouement of feminism’s second wave that made the false promise to women that the world was finally equal; a moment in time where the waif was elevated in society by virtue of her thinness; when the media declared open season on scrutinising the feminine physique.

Take, for example, Calista Flockhart. This week the heart throb star of the late 1990s legal comedy Ally McBeal gave an interview to the New York Times to coincide with the launch of a new series. The slight woman – “lissom” as described by journalist Maureen O’Dowd – explained the embarrassment and fear caused by media speculation over whether her small frame was thanks to a struggle with anorexia. “It was painful, it was complicated ... I did think that it was going to ruin my career. I didn’t think anybody would ever hire me again, because they would just assume I had anorexia,” Flockhart told the newspaper.

“I have a lot of distance and perspective, and I’m still incredulous. I cannot believe that I was scrutinised and pursued like that. It was intense and it was unfair.”

Thankfully the worst throes of noughties magazine culture have mollified. It seems the news stands adopted a semblance of propriety, and soon after the United Kingdom witnessed the overdue demise of Page 3 in most of its tabloids. How nice it would be to chalk this up to a swift one-and-done victory for feminism: prime-time TV has swapped America’s Next Top Model for The Great British Bake Off, so let’s dust off our hands and call it a day.


In this environment the likes of the Kardashians thrive. It seems easy to conclude that in the 21st century few have had a more caustic effect on the self-esteem of the West’s adolescent women

It could never be so simple. Mag culture may have waned but the problem has not gone with it; rather it migrated to the internet and into a more dangerous and less regulated environment. The magazines may have peddled odd diets to their readers, but the blogging platform Tumblr by the mid 2010s was stacked to the rafters with forums and accounts explicitly dedicated to glorifying anorexia. The professional media may have once ranked women’s appearances in frightful “best beach body” lists. But now TikTok comment threads are a wild west of teenage girls discussing their icons: Selena Gomez has gained too much, Ariana Grande has lost even more.

In this environment the likes of the Kardashians thrive. Are the five sisters paradigms of feminine business acumen or a pernicious cabal that exploit women’s insecurities for their own gain? They derive their very power from this online-influence landscape. And with their reams of product lines – shapewear, lip liners, skincare, “wellness” blogs – it seems easy to conclude that in the 21st century few have had a more caustic effect on the self-esteem of the West’s adolescent women.

We shouldn’t be quick to dismiss this most influential family’s role in shaping the soul of the feminine beauty industrial complex. But as we have seen with the pervasive draw of the 2000s celeb mag, it is not fair to land blame for everything squarely at their feet. Since the advent of the camera and the Hollywood machine, and latterly social media, we have always been quick to scrutinise the appearance of starlets; to flog any manner of beauty treatment to the mass market in woman’s endless pursuit of the aesthetic ideal. The Kardashians hardly invented the wheel.

The medium may change but the message is resolute. It is not exactly a hopeful conclusion but it perhaps an unavoidable one: this nastiness was neither unleashed by the Kardashians nor is it consigned to the news stands of the past. A common-sense assessment should tell us something is wrong.

What encourages such noxious treatment of women either via professional media or the self-regulating online blogosphere? The invisible hand of the market tells us something very different – it seems that we don’t really care.

Still, while Flockhart told Dowd she was hurt by chatter about whether she had anorexia, she at least believes times have changed. “I don’t think that would ever happen today,” she said. “They call it body-shaming now.”