Media Influence on Eating Disorders
The Media’s Influence on Eating Disorders
Eating disorders, for many a result of marketing and advertising campaigns from companies that try to use sex appeal to sell products, affect millions of Americans and others around the world. “Eating disorders are more prevalent in industrialized and often Western cultures and are far more common among women than men” (Keel, 2006). This is due to the fact that cultural ideas of beauty are more centered around a woman’s weight and looks in Western cultures than in other parts of the world. Early history of eating disorders provides different motivations behind the self-starvation of Anorexia Nervosa (AN). In the 5th and 8th centuries, people with anorexia nervosa were viewed as being possessed by demons and curable by ritualistic exorcism. Later in the 12th century, cases of AN were found as a result of religious fasting. Today, anorexia is defined as a psychological disorder with the people affected in need of treatment.
Anorexia Nervosa typically involves excessive weight loss. Persons suffering from this condition view their bodies as distorted and experience irrational fears about gaining weight. Frequently, people with this condition will lose so much weight that their bones are showing, but they still see themselves as fatter than they should be. Anorexia is very unhealthy because people do not get enough vitamins when they do not eat, and their organs eventually begin shutting down. Numerous health concerns are associated with this condition, and sometimes, as in the case of pop singer, Karen Carpenter, death is the end result.
Bulimia occurs when a person consumes inordinate amounts of food in a short period of time before purging it from their bodies. Vomiting and the use of laxatives are the most common ways of purging, and sometimes persons with this disorder can repeat the purging cycle 20 or 30 times per day. Like anorexia, bulimics can suffer severe health consequences or even death. A fear of weight gain is the motivation behind purging, and again, persons with this disorder usually have an unrealistic and distorted view of their weight.
Obesity has become a worldwide epidemic. Statisticians estimate that there are more than one billion obese people in the world. What is commonly referred to as, “the battle of the bulge,” has become harder to fight with the convenience and availability of so many fatty foods and fast food restaurants. This availability is compounded by the fact that much of American society is centered around food. Characteristics of obesity include frequent episodes of eating what other people consider large quantities, lack of control while overeating or binging, eating rapidly and swallowing food quickly, eating when full, eating large amounts of food even when not hungry, eating alone out of embarrassment, feeling disgusted and distressed while overeating, and having a preference for refined carbohydrates and fatty foods.
Body dysmorphia is a condition in which a person views physical parts of their body as being disfigured or flawed, even when they are not. These people will go to many extremes, such as having plastic surgery to correct a flaw that doesn’t exist and sometimes having plastic surgery to correct the previous plastic surgery that wasn’t perfect enough. People affected with this condition tend to avoid social situations for fear of being seen and judged on their looks because they will always come up short.
Psychodynamic theorists base their theories upon internalized forces that govern human behavior. Sigmund Freud is a prime example. He believed that many behaviors stem from instinctual behavior, subconscious internalized experiences, and conscience decision making. The psychodynamic model of family influence claims that AN is a result of a mother inappropriately responding to the child’s hunger cues as an infant. “This mismatch between the infant’s needs and her mother’s responses impaired the development of the girl’s ability to interpret her own internal states” (Keel, 2009).
For many adolescent girls, AN is an unconscious need to be overly thin. According to this theory, the girl is powerless to fight against her own instinct to starve herself in an attempt to stay thin because she wasn’t equipped with the basic advantage of learning hunger cues. While many AN sufferers have overcome and won this battle, so many more do not. Their instincts overrule their conscious decision-making processes, and they cannot stop themselves from doing what comes so naturally to them.
The social learning model of family influence explains that AN is caused by learned behaviors and attitudes about food and body image from family members. For many in Western cultures, the fear of being fat is passed on from parents to children. While good health should be the issue discussed with regard to food, frequently the term “fat” is thrown around like fat is the worst thing a person could become. For those who grow up in these environments, their fear of becoming fat and therefore unlovable is stronger than their hunger pains or their good sense. These feeling are reinforced constantly in these environments where pressure is put on the girl to be skinny. Many parents do not realize what message they are giving their girls until a health issue with regard to an eating disorder materializes. Bulimia results when a person is deprived of the enjoyment of a simple meal by environmental influences, and the urge to binge becomes stronger and stronger, followed by feelings of guilt about eating abnormal amounts of food. This behavior becomes addictive, and before long becomes a health and emotional hazard. A by-product of this environment is criticism, which heaps low self-esteem onto the adolescent and perpetuates the cycle of the eating disorder.
Much research has been performed to determine the familial and social contributions to body image disturbances. It was found that children with fathers who were dissatisfied with their appearance, either feeling too thin or not fit enough, were more likely to have daughters with body image issues. “Parental behaviors such as over control of their child’s eating, together with later pressure from parents and peers to be thin, were related to higher levels of TBPSP” (Agras, Bryson, Hammer, & Kraemer, 2007) or thin body preoccupation and social pressure to be thin.
Lastly, the psychoanalytic model of family influence relates anorexia nervosa to a fear of sexual maturity. By starving themselves and not receiving adequate nutrition, girls would fall behind in sexual maturity and avoid developing into their mother. For many young girls, reaching sexual maturity is a frightening prospect, and by subconsciously stunting their own growth, they believe they are staving off what they fear the most. As with the other models, this behavioral pattern stems from an underlying emotional issue that must be resolved before progress can be made to stop the eating disorder.
Analysis of Current Media Initiatives
The media has an immense influence on eating disorders in young girls and women, in general. Television personalities, movie stars, commercial products, and models set the example of what it is to be beautiful. This gives a person an unrealistic role model as to how they should physically look and what is attractive within their society. When they do not appear that way or perceive a variance of appearance from the norm, psychological disturbances can occur.
Magazines such as Allure, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour, depict the preferred image of girls and women as being closer to a size 0, even though the average woman in America is a size 14. This image becomes what girls and women strive for to the point that they become dissatisfied with their body image and take drastic steps to improve. “Among girls, body dissatisfaction and eating disorders increase during and following puberty (Field, 1999), together with challenges to the experience of self, self-esteem, and mood (Erkut, Fields, Sing, & Marx, 1996).
Magazines such as these feature page after page of beautiful women, all as thin as possible, and tout them as role models that young women should aspire to be. Each gives diet tips and explains how to “lose 20 pounds in six weeks,” mostly with unattainable for the average woman or girl diet plans. Reading these magazines reinforces the idea that if you don’t look like these “ideal” women, you are lacking and need to do something about your appearance.
Some tabloids take it a step further with pictures of women in bikinis, some thin, some larger, and seem to make fun of the larger women, intimating that the larger women is not as worthy of admiration as the thinner woman. These magazines set the standard of beauty so high that most women are left wallowing in their own unattractiveness and wondering how they will ever be able to compete in a world filled with thin beauties.
Television sends girls the same message. For example, women and young girls feel an enormous pressure to be sexy, to feel that men desire them. Advertising on television has an incredibly adverse effect on many young girls simply because of the volume of ads that use sex appeal as a tool to sell and the amount of time most people spend watching television, which reinforces the message over and over and over. Victoria Secret advertising campaigns, which feature very thin models in bras and panties, send the message that these thin women are the sexiest and most desirable women in society. Young girls and young women who view these commercials and then look at themselves cannot ever measure up and are, therefore, not sexy enough until they look like these models. They mistakenly believe the subliminal message that men will not want them because they are not thin enough. For those with AN or bulimia, this message reinforces their need to starve themselves or binge and purge, while overweight women eat more and more because they feel their self-worth hits bottom when they see these advertisements.
Some men, as well, can lose their confidence when faced with ads touting virile men with six-pack abs as the epitome of what women want. And while some men do develop eating (and exercising) disorders as a result, women seem to be more emotional and more prone to be influenced by the advertising they view.
The media has determined what is sexy, from buxom, thin young girls begging viewing to call their 1-800 numbers for a sexy chat to beauties like Kate Hudson who hawk Cover Girl to women dying to become more attractive. Even Weight Watchers with celebrities like spokeswomen like Jennifer Hudson and NutriSystem using Marie Osmond, send the message that, “I was ugly, and now I’m pretty because I lost weight.” These messages make being too fat or too thin or not pretty enough difficult for any girl.
Movies are another source of bad karma for insecure women. Movie stars like Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow, have become the standard for what is beautiful not only in America but around the world. While overweight women, like Queen Latifa, have become movie stars, these stars are few and far between. Queen Latifa usually plays comedic roles, while the other thinner stars who look great in the briefest of bikinis are portrayed as the sex symbols. It is only recently that Queen Latifa played a role in Just Wright that depicted an overweight woman winner the heart of a basketball star when a thinner woman was in the picture. This does show an effort by some movie makers to change the standard of what is beautiful to a degree, but these efforts are few and far between. And still, the young girl in the movie theater is receiving the same message as with other forms of media—you are not worthy unless you are thin and beautiful. It’s no wonder so many young girls succumb to the pressure and develop eating disorders.
As mentioned previously, the average woman in America is size 14. Back in the 1960s, the average woman was a size 8. Because of the changing diets of Americans, the introduction of more fatty foods, and lifestyle changes, including a faster-paced society which brought about fast food chains, the average weight and size of women has increased dramatically. Each year, more and more children and adults are added to the list of obese in America. Yet, the focus with advertisers still seems to be on obsessively thin women as the ideal and not on the health of an entire population.
An article published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, Risk Factors for Obesity in Adolescent Girls, studied risk factors for obesity. Researchers sampled 496 adolescent girls in between the ages of 11 and 15 years old. Factors such as “dietary restraint, radical weight-control behaviors, depressive symptoms, and perceived parental obesity” (Stice, Presnell, Shaw, & Rhode, 2005) were measured. Interestingly, it was found that those that showed higher restraint on their diet at 11 to 15 years of age had an increased risk for obesity later in life.
There are emotional factors that perpetuate the cycle of obesity, as well. As a person becomes depressed about their body image, many times it is food that is used to console negative emotions. The public view of people struggling with obesity is that they are fat and lazy. This view not only has a psychological impact on people with obesity, but it contributes to the lack of support that this disorder has.
The answer lies in the self-esteem of each person who watches advertising on television or reads a magazine or goes to the movies. Environment, natural instincts and fear of sexuality all factor in to why people have eating disorders, but for most young women, self-esteem and a feeling of not quite measuring up to what is sexy and beautiful in the most influential factor in their eating disorders. The media can help this situation by changing the way in which it portrays beauty.
For example, there is not a person in the world who could say that Mother Theresa was not a beautiful person. She was not, however, considered a beauty. Her beauty came from within, from a place in her heart and soul and a willingness to give to others. Mother Theresa was beautiful, but not many women would aspire to look like Mother Theresa even though they recognize her innate beauty. I propose that many eating disorders could be stemmed if the media changed its ideal of beauty.
For example, Victoria Secret could feature ads for real women, women who are size 14 or larger, who would prance around looking seductive in sexy lingerie made just for them. While it must be said that companies like Fruit of the Loom have begun embracing this idea, not many people think of sexy when they think of Fruit of the Loom. Featuring average, everyday women who reflect life in America could go a long way toward changing the perception of what is sexy, and a new ideal—an ideal that every woman is beautiful no matter her size—could emerge if television got on board.
Magazines, too, could stop featuring only skinny women as role models for what women should be and feature the size 14 girl as just as sexy and attractive to men. Instead of focusing on diet and beauty, they could focus more on healthy living and eating habits. Instead of making fun of that overweight girl with cellulite, they could depict women as beautiful no matter what. I’m not suggesting that they promote obesity, I’m suggesting that they focus on health instead of diet, on substance instead on sexy.
Movies, too, should feature average sized women in prominent roles where the girl gets the guy because he’s attracted to who she is a person rather than the fact that she fits into a size 3 and has gigantic breasts. Showing average women getting the guy in the end could go a long way toward rebuilding the sagging self-esteem of women who just cannot compete in this world of too thin women who are the ideal of beauty. Showing women that who they are is more important than how they look is one way in which movies and all media outlets and advertising agencies could help stem what has become an epidemic for many women. Changing the perception of what is important in life is indeed the responsibility of the media who has mandated what is beautiful and what is not in American society.
And while the media alone cannot be blamed for the problems of women, the role of the media has become so large today that it certainly must accept the challenge to help women feel better about themselves and thus help them to become healthier and happier.
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