Media and Eating Disorders
It was in the 1970s that eating disorders became a problem worthy of serious attention. 25 years later, today fully understanding the etiology of this problem eludes us. However, the increase in eating disorders if often blamed on the media and its emphasis of “idealized” body and weight examples which, it is often said, convince or even force people to try to attain that level of slimness (Thompson, 1990). In this paper we attempt to find out more about the role media has as far as eating disorders are concerned, to try and reach a definite conclusion about whether it is or not to blame.
In today’s world it is highly difficult to imagine life without media. A large majority of us own a TV set and watch it for multiple hours every day. Newspapers, magazines, music CDs, DVDs and PCs to a large extent rule our life in a way that we don’t even realize how often we interact with media (Jade, 2002). All these different mediums have different functions and seek to pass along different types of information and entertainment to their audience. However since time immemorial there has been a question in the air: do media influence society or are they a mere representation of current or emerging trends and mindsets? (Eating Disorders and the Media) While it may have been believed in times before World War II that media introduces new patterns of thinking and values into a society, later research made it evident that the audience plays more of an active role in this restructuring of society by selecting information, filtering it and not accepting messages which contradict the inherent values or morals that group possesses (Thompson, 1990). However, regardless of these processes and the impact of social clusters, research has generally proven that the people within a group who get the most affected by media are those who are less confident than others and suffer from low self esteem (Jade, 2002).
Hence there have been countless debates about the role media plays in shaping social behavior. However, what must be remembered is that the impact a message has and the response it elicits can not be generalized across the board because of the varying attention levels as well as person- and context-specific interpretation of individuals which comes into play (Thompson, 1990; Wolf, 1991). Nevertheless an issue the media has been battling for some time is that it is accused of “glorifying the culture of thinness, of causing an epidemic of eating distress, especially among young women.” The media does not accept any part of this and denies any responsibility for the increasing incidence of eating disorders among women today. According to Kelly Brownell, an internationally renowned expert on weight control, obesity and eating disorder, believes that the media does play a role in creating a “toxic environment” which increases the likelihood of eating disorders. This happens because the media does exhibit and promote an ideal body type, which has a low weight and is perfectly “sculptured” (Jade, 2002).
Some researchers believe that the media’s impact can not be viewed in isolation as far as eating disorders are concerned. While studies do prove that young girls with low self esteem score higher on the eating distress measures as they grow older, and it should be remembered that self-esteem is dynamic, and is usually at a certain level because of a whole range of diverse factors such as childhood events, relationship with parents, social experiences, personality traits and body image (Stark, 2008). But stimuli which influence body image do impact self-esteem and hence increase the chance of the person developing an eating disorder because the person would want to exercise control of their body to feel up to a certain standard. Following this pattern of thinking, the media does play a role in lowering self-esteem of individuals as it unabashedly promotes a slender physique as the most important step in attaining everything in life, be it love, success or respect of others. When it does so, it also reflects and promotes the societal tendency to reject anything to do with fat (Chang, 1998).
Media people however, are quick to remind us that an eating disorder can not be attributed to esteem issues alone. Other factors which might lead to eating disorders are harrowing childhood events, sexuality concerns, history with dieting and unhealthy eating habits (one’s own as well as those of other people), the age at which puberty was reached and the family experiences of an individual (Wolf, 1991). Hence all these aspects have an impact on the nature of a person’s relationship with food. The media then, plays a two-pronged role: it “may both steer and reflect our cultural obsession with how we look and what we put into our mouths” (Jade, 2002).
Polivy & Herman (2002) set out to conduct a research on the pathological features as well as causes of eating disorders (EDs). They admitted that it was not surprising that the media often take the blame for presenting a distorted version of reality: models and celebrities often give the impression that one has to be either naturally thin (which means to be at the tail of the bell curve distribution of body weight) and in this way not a true reflection of a normal weight, or unnaturally thin (which means as a result of extreme measures to reach and maintain a low weight and a slender physique). However the researchers found that “idealized media images are at best a background cause of EDs”. They stated in their study that in this day and age there is so much media exposure that if one were to believe that exposure were the sole cause of EDs, then what would be the justification for people who were in fact not suffering from eating disorders, since by the rule, they were also exposed to the same media.
These authors also quoted a study by Tiggemann & Pickering (1996) in which the researchers had found that girls underwent feelings of dissatisfaction with their bodies and strove to attain the ideal thin physique when their exposure to specific types of television shows was increased. However, the researchers had maintained their stance as follows: “although it is tempting to conclude that watching a large dose of thin idealized images on television leads to dissatisfaction with one’s body, a correlation cannot determine causality. An alternative scenario, for example, might be that those most dissatisfied with their bodies or wishing to be thinner, seek out or are more interested in particular types of television.” Polivy and Herman (2002) concluded that socio cultural factors such as media do lead to the “idealization of thinness”, but this can not be rightfully called a primary cause of eating disorders. Rather, they presented a rather unique insight. According to them an alternate scenario may be that the relentless focus on attaining the perfect body shape and size might be a release for one’s individual pathology: hence, people who do not know of a more suitable solution to their problems get caught in a relentless struggle to attain a thin body.
Tiggeman ; Pickering (1996) stated that it is widely accepted and proven by many researches that women’s high level of dissatisfaction with their bodies and body image, and the increasing incidences of eating disorders can be attributed to factors within the socio cultural model. According to this model, society sets specific standards for beauty and these standards invariably focus on glorifying thinness. There are a large number of studies which have provided evidence of the societal shift in preference towards thinner and slender women. These studies have also suggested that media plays a monumental role in communication of these socio cultural standards and going by this rationale, the media does contribute in the causal function. As Nemeroff, Stein, Diehl and Smilack (1994) put it, media bombards women with “a constant barrage of idealized images of extremely thin women” and in this way, sets ideal body standards which women find highly difficult, even impossible, to achieve.
They then embark on the struggle to attain this slender physique but this wreaks havoc on their self-esteem as well as their health because of the excessive dieting they start. Another result is eating disorders. Tiggeman ; Pickering (1996) attempted to prove this by carrying out a study to understand the direct effect of television, which is perceived by some as the most influential tool of mass media, on body dissatisfaction and the pursuit of thinness. Young people spend a lot of time watching television and societal demands for the ideal body type have a particularly greater impact at this time. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa generally emerge in the older adolescents and are the most common in this age bracket (Thompson, 1990; Wolf, 1991). Hence this study focused on this age group and had rather interesting findings.
Adolescent women with an average BMI lower than the recommended normal BMI were not satisfied with their weight as they viewed themselves as overweight and ranked high on Drive for Thinness ratings. This study also found that teenage girls, at an average around 15 years old, watched about 20 hours of television in one week, which is very heavy television viewing, and is bound to have an impact. It was also found that the specific content they watched on TV was related to their lack of satisfaction with their body and resulting pursuit of thinness. The study showed specifically that “time reported watching soaps or serials and movies, programs likely to show women in stereotyped roles, was positively correlated with body dissatisfaction” (Tiggeman ; Pickering, 1996). Also, an interesting finding was that while soap operas and movies both were related to body dissatisfaction, it was only music videos which were related to the key indicator for anorexia, Drive for Thinness. The authors proposed that this may be because watching music videos provides one with a clearer chance to compare one’s body with the idealized physique being presented, which in itself has been shown in other researches to be a prime contributing factor in creating negative feelings about one’s body. As the authors further state, a reason why music videos specifically have this effect is because while women have other roles in soaps and movies, in music videos the images which are presented might be a deliberate attempt to portray young women as their appearance should be (Tiggeman ; Pickering, 1996).
Hence this study is a concrete attempt to prove the oft-assumed link between the media and the rampant socio cultural obsession with thinness because its results show the effect at an individual level between television viewing and body dissatisfaction and consequent pursuit of thinness. However, one must remember that this study at best is a correlational one, and correlation does not on its own equal to causality. Nevertheless, it is vital for its evidence about the relationship between media (television to be precise) and body dissatisfaction, which could eventually lead to eating disorders (Tiggeman ; Pickering, 1996; Derenne ; Beresin, 2006).
Field (2000) conducted two studies: one was a cross-sectional study among young women in a suburb of a large city and the second had a large cohort of girls living in various states all across the country as its sample. The results showed that 47 percent girls said that they would want to lose weight because of the images presented in magazines and 69 percent said that their perception of the perfect body is shaped by magazine images. Specifically, results showed that: “The more frequently a girl read women’s magazines, the more likely she was to have dieted to lose weight because of a magazine article (p = .02), have wanted to lose weight because of pictures in magazines (p = .004), and have felt that pictures in magazines influenced her idea of the perfect body shape (p = .001).”
The findings of this study also showed that it was more likely that girls who frequently read fashion magazines would resort to dieting to become thin as a result of the pictures and articles in these magazines. The author conducted the second study in a different fashion: they used data from a research known as the Growing Up Today Study which has as its sample 9,039 girls and 7,843 boys who were aged between 9 and 14 years when the study was commenced in 1996. For this research, the author analyzed the data from young girls only because there were higher incidences of purging as compared to those in young boys and warranted a more in-depth analysis (Field, 2000).
The study began in 1996 and in that year, about 29 percent of the girls had started dieting the year before in order to become thin and 14 percent of the girls said that they were “always” concerned about their weight while 6 percent admitted to making significant efforts to emulate the bodies of actresses or models they saw in movies, television or in the print media. One year into the study 1% of the young women started either vomiting, or using laxatives on a monthly basis to lose weight. The study showed that in that one year, regardless of age, maturity, dieting history or weight issues, there was a positive correlation between the reported effort to look like models or actresses and resorting to purge in order to control weight: “the risk of beginning to purge increased approximately 30 to 40 percent per one-category increase in frequency of trying to look like females on television or in magazines or movies” (Field, 2000).
Hawkins, Richards, Granley and Stein (2004) also found that there was a causal relationship between exposure to thin or ideal body images in the media and women’s feelings of body dissatisfaction. This study also showed that women who were exposed to these images scored higher ratings on the BDI subscales of anorexia, bulimia and purging. Hence while the authors admitted that the study could not establish an absolute link between exposure to thin or ideal body images in the media and increasing incidence of eating disorders, there was still evidence in this study to point towards how this exposure for women can lead to their endorsement of beliefs, attitudes and perceptions related to abnormal eating habits. Therefore the authors concluded that exposure to thin or ideal body images in the media can lead to harmful effects in a variety of ways, on normal women as well as those already suffering from an eating disorder.
Kristen Harrison, assistant professor of communication studies, undertook a study in which the sample consisted of 232 female undergraduate students at a Midwestern university in 1994. She found that there were 15 percent of the women who had the signs which were chief criteria for disordered eating behavior. These were body dissatisfaction, a desire for perfectionism, indications pointing to anorexia or bulimia, body dissatisfaction, relentless pursuit of thinness, and a feeling of personal ineffectiveness. This study provided proof that signs of eating disorders among women are substantially predicted by exposure to media which depicts and promotes thinness (Harrison, 2001).
There are numerous studies done on this subject and while a definite causal link between media exposure and eating disorders has not been established, most findings do state that exposure to thin or ideal body images in the media is positively correlated to the symptoms of eating disorders or those factors which might lead to eating disorders at some later point in time. As Harrison (2001) stated, “British model Kate Moss and other ultrathin cultural icons of feminine beauty who have sparked much of this controversy may not be uniquely dangerous. Instead, the overall emphasis on feminine thinness exemplified by multiple media depictions of slender models and actresses should be considered for its possible influence on disordered eating.” Today’s powerful and ubiquitous media is one of the culprits in this quest for thinness but nevertheless, people should remember that there are other factors at play as well. Parental behaviors and family mindset and values also have a significant role to play in encouraging healthy behavior and a lifestyle which is not plagued by the struggle to achieve the perfect body, even at the cost of inflicting serious harm on oneself.
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