Since the release of the movie Joker, it seems almost as much attention has been paid to actor Joaquin Phoenix’s dramatic weight loss as to his performance as the character Arthur Fleck. Director Todd Phillips considered the character’s body size as one way to represent his vulnerability. It is important to emphasize that unlike most people who diet to lose weight or who develop an eating disorder, Phoenix’s weight loss was intended for the short amount of time it took to shoot the movie. Although media reports indicate that the weight loss was done under a doctor’s care, Phoenix’s descriptions of the experience mirror symptoms of an eating disorder.
In an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, host Jimmy Kimmel asks Phoenix about his experience losing weight for the movie Joker. This interview demonstrates how dieting resembles an eating disorder.
Comments within the interview transcript below highlight eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors.
Phoenix: [Speaking about the major effort it took to lose weight for the movie.] It’s difficult at times. But then there’s something very empowering about it as well.
Diet culture messaging around “empowerment” is embedded in the assumption that deprivation – denying the body’s needs for nourishment – demonstrates willpower, self-control, and moral superiority. One common theme in dieting and fitness media is “No Excuses!”
Kimmel: [incredulous] Is there?
Phoenix: I think just having, like, that level of control over yourself…. In the beginning, you’re exhausted. You look at a flight of stairs, and it takes like 30 seconds. You have to talk yourself into it. Say, “I can do this. I know I can do this.” But then, once you’ve reached your target weight – I don’t know what happens – it’s incredible. You suddenly just feel energized and excited.
Undernourishment takes a toll, both physically and mentally. For someone who had otherwise been in good health prior to dieting, it is a significant change to need a 30-second internal pep talk to handle a flight of stairs. This is par for the course with eating disorders, and even for dieting. By definition, diets promise weight loss (albeit temporary) as an outcome of an energy deficit due to reduced calories.
The ability to control food intake – and the associated illusion of control over one’s life – creates a feeling of specialness. Eating disorders give a false sense of uniqueness and comfort. However, any excited feelings over reaching a target weight are usually short-lived. While behaviors around food such as restriction or bingeing often begin as a way to cope with trauma or uncomfortable feelings, they do not work in the long run. Therefore, although eating disorders appear to be about food and body size, they are serious disorders that go much deeper.
Kimmel: Maybe your stomach shrivels up to like the size of a raisin, and then it doesn’t want any food really in there.
Phoenix: No, you still want food!
Kimmel: Oh, you do.
Phoenix: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
One of the myths about people with eating disorders is that they are not hungry. This is not true. For many, anxiety overeating and weight gain overrides the urge to eat. At times, the hunger caused by undereating can result in bingeing, even for people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. And over time, chronic dieters and those with an eating disorder can develop a disconnect with their body’s natural cues of hunger and fullness. Rebuilding the ability to sense hunger and fullness takes time during recovery.
Kimmel: Is it the kind of thing, like I find sometimes I’ll fast for the day, and then I will just look at recipes online all day. I see a recipe, I’m like, ‘I gotta save that, I gotta make that cheeseburger, I gotta do this.
Phoenix: Yeah, I mean, it’s tough. Because you don’t like – you can’t watch TV. ‘Cause like a commercial comes on for food: F#$%in’ maddening.
Kimmel: Yeah, right. You start thinking, ‘I’m going to the Sizzler.’
Phoenix: Well, no, I’m vegan, so…
Kimmel: Well, they got a lot of chickpeas.
Phoenix: But yeah, it rears its head in strange ways, in dreams and things like that.
Kimmel: Oh wow.
Phoenix: Yeah, it’s the worst.
Here, Joaquin Phoenix describes the obsession with food that typically happens with food deprivation. It is not uncommon for those who do not eat enough food (whether that is purposeful or due to the environment) to think and dream about food. In the 1940s, researcher Ancel Keys of the University of Minnesota conducted what is now known as The Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Keys recruited 36 young men who were conscientious objectors from World War II. The purpose of the study was to understand the best ways to re-feed a starving population, such as residents of war-torn Europe.
None of the research participants appeared to have anything but a healthy relationship with food at the start. But the deprivation due to the study’s conditions led them to develop thoughts and behaviors similar to an eating disorder. They would study recipes, fantasize and read about eating and take an extended time consuming the meals they were served. Notably, although these young men were eating less than their bodies needed, they were eating a similar amount to typical “sensible” weight-loss diets today. Joaquin Phoenix has not disclosed the actual plan he followed to lose such a large amount of weight for Joker, but it would almost certainly be more austere.
Kimmel: Do you go out to dinner and things like that, and sit there and not eat? Or skip going out.
Phoenix: No, you don’t. You don’t socialize.
Kimmel: You do not socialize.
Phoenix: But we don’t realize that, like, food and drink is what all of our social activity revolves around, right?
While in the throes of an eating disorder, isolation is common. People with all types of eating disorders will often avoid social gatherings, restaurants, and even family meals. The eating disorder voice may be saying that this is the right thing to do to stay in control of food. However, this ends up harming crucial interpersonal relationships.
It is unclear if Phoenix actually developed an eating disorder, or continues to struggle with disordered thoughts and behaviors around food. Eating disorders are multifaceted and complex, including a genetic predisposition. Not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder; however, dieting is a known risk factor.
If you or a loved one is struggling with food and body image, please seek help.
About the Author
Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and in their body. Learn more.
Risk Factors. National Eating Disorders Association.
The Psychology of Hunger. American Psychological Association.