Eating Disorders and the Media’s Role.
It is not surprising that eating disorders are on the increase due to the value society places on being thin. In modern Western culture, women are given the message at a very young age that in order to be happy and successful, they must be thin. Every time you walk into a store you are surrounded by the images of emaciated models that appear on the front cover of fashion magazines. Women are constantly bombarded with advertisements catering to what is considered desirable. Thousands of women and girls are starving themselves this very minute trying to attain what the fashion industry considers to be the ideal waif-like figure. During this paper I will mainly be discussing the effects on females, though males are afflicted with eating disorders, the causes are different than those in the opposite sex. The average model weighs 23% less than the average woman. Maintaining a weight that is 15% below your expected body weight fits the criteria for anorexia, so most models, according to medical standards, fit into the category of being anorexic (Brumberg 205). Women must realize that society’s ideal body image may in fact be achievable, but at a detrimental price to one’s body. The photos we see in magazines are not a clear image of reality. Adolescents and women striving to attain society’s unattainable ideal more often than not, increase their feelings of inadequacy.
In contemporary society young women easily cling to dieting precisely because it is widely practiced and an admired form of cultural expression. In the twentieth century, the body—not the face—became the focus of female beauty. As a consequence of this media portrayal of beauty, dieting has moved from the periphery to the center of women’s lives and culture. Dieting has manifested in two noticeable and important ways that have consequences for eating disorders. First, upon comparing physical appearances throughout the twentieth century, the female body size has become significantly slimmer. According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of “Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa,” (1988) society
experienced a “brief flirtation with full-breasted, curvaceous female figures during 1950s, our collective taste returned to an ideal of extreme thinness and an androgynous, if not childlike, figure.” Our cultural tolerance for body fat has diminished over the years, causing an infiltration of these feelings to adolescents and young women, the group most afflicted with eating disorders. Second, society projects an image that being thin is tied to attractiveness, popularity with the opposite sex, and self esteem—all primary ingredients in adolescent culture. Nearly 50% of all women are on a diet at any given time (Bordo 140). The fact that women have such strong concerns about attractiveness is compelling evidence for the power of dieting message. Given western culture’s longstanding admiration of thinness, it is no wonder that so many young women resort to dieting and that eating disorders have become part of the psychopathology of females.
Diet commercials are constantly appearing on our television screens telling us that once we lose the weight, we will be happy, content, and successful. You stand in the check out line at the grocery store surrounded by magazines claiming to have the newest and best diet. Each month another new diet appears claiming to be the diet to end all diets. Whatever happened to last month’s diets that claimed the same thing? Dieting has become an obsession in modern western culture. Many of the diets on the market right now are unhealthy. They deprive you of the proper nutrition your body needs to survive and can lead to health problems.
The diet and fashion industries are not totally to blame for society’s obsession with thinness. We are the ones keeping them in business. We buy into the “ideal” body image. We allow ourselves to believe the lies being thrown at us constantly. We buy their magazines, diet books and products, hoping that this time they will work. We are
throwing away our hard earned money trying to live up to the standards that society has set for us. Be prepared to spend lots of money on your quest for the perfect diet and be prepared to never find it, because there isn’t one.
Eating disorders were first diagnosed in the 1950s or early 1960s and have spread rapidly over the following decades (Brumberg 3). Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia nervosa, the two officially recognized eating disorders, have become major focuses of attention among the public due to rapid increases in occurrences. Both of these diseases are associated with one overriding desire: all encompassing drive to be thin. (Chernin 28). The causes of these disorders are numerous. Some are biological, but the strongest causes are due to sociocultural factors. There are several sociocultural causes of eating disorders. For instance, an improvement of the economic conditions of woman, family characteristics, and visual exposure to ideal image of the female body in the media would influence eating disorders (Bordo 52).
First, eating disorders are culturally specific. More than 90% of the cases of severe eating disorders are found in young, white female of middle to upper socioeconomic status who are living in a competitive environment. (Bordo 53). Anorexia is also more likely to occur in professions where there is a culture of slenderness like dancing, athletics, modeling, etc. In the 20th century, there has been a huge change in the concept of attractiveness. As women had more chances to get higher education and enter into better professions, there was prejudice against women in the workplace. In the sense that heavier women began to be perceived as lacking competence. Slender women became the standard of attractiveness for women who were
graduating from college and entering their professions. This change of ideals would help women to fit in with the male-dominated workplace. The following was collected from Home Journal,
Playboy magazine, and Miss America participants by Garner, Garfinkle, Schwartz, and Thompson. According to this data, 69% of Playboy centerfolds and 60% of Miss America participants from 1959 to1978 had weights 15% or below the average weights for their age and height (Brumberg 254).
Second, an ideal body image differs among different ethnic groups. The research of Madeline Altabe, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, indicates that Caucasian and Hispanic-Americans showed more weight-related body image disturbance than African-Americans and Asian-Americans. African-Americans had the most positive general body image. Ethnic groups were similar in their ideal body image traits (Bordo 53).
Third, there are common family characteristics among eating disorder patients. Many of the patients are from middle and upper class backgrounds whose parents are high achievers. The typical anorexic family seems to be hard-driven and concerned about external appearances including physical ones. To accomplish these goals, family members often deny negative feelings and tend to attribute their problems to other people. In “Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body” statistically proven data suggests that among eating disorder patients there are significant differences of cohesion and expressiveness. Cohesion and expressiveness are the degree of unity among family members. Comparing with normally functioning families, those with eating disorder patients scored lower on cohesiveness and expressiveness. (54)
Fourth, and most importantly, visual media appears to have an effect on the frequency of eating disorders. After the 1920s, the number of diet articles in fashion magazines has increased. Many young women have role models in media images of very thin women. Extremely thin
runway models influence young women to develop eating disorders. A study was conducted to show whether visual exposure influences the formation of an ideal body image or not. This study found that congenitally blind women had the lowest levels of body image satisfaction and disordered eating attitudes compared to those women blinded later in life. Sighted subjects showed significantly higher levels of both body image dissatisfaction and eating attitudes. (Bordo 35)
On the other hand, there are other points of view with a biological dimension. Genetic factors are correlated with eating disorders by showing the high inheritability of anorexia. Neurobiological abnormalities also appear like increased seratonin function in the brain. However, there are some fallacies in accepting these as factors because the inheritability estimates were based on identical twins and tend to exaggerate the effect of genetics in the population. Also the study about neurotransmitters does not show any specific neurotransmitters. There is a question as to whether the neurobiological abnormalities exist as the cause or effect of eating disorders. In some ways, they can be a result of semi-starvation or the binge-eating cycle; thus they are not causes. Few cases of anorexia nervosa were found outside the western world. For instance, six cases were identified in the Caribbean Island of Curacao. If these cases were caused by inheritability, this can be an example of how sociocultural influence can be factored into eating disorders by the small number of incidents. Compared with people in the western
culture, people in Curacao were not exposed to many sociocultural factors; therefore, despite their biological vulnerability, few people were afflicted with disorders.
Throughout the research about the causes of eating disorders, there are many factors. As we have seen, sociocultural factors contribute a lot to form an ideal body image, which never
seems to be achieved. However, to know more about eating disorders, an integrative approach is more useful rather than the one-sided approach because of the complexity of these disorders.
“It is clear that a very large percentage of American women are unhappy with their bodies,” says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls,” (1998). “That kind of unhappiness begins very, very early in life,” she says.
The rise of plastic surgery, the prevalence of dieting and the high number of women in therapy are examples prove that women still suffer from self-esteem problems. Women still feel unhappy about the way the advertising industry portrays females. “Fashion magazines deliberately promote fantasy,” says Mary Peacock of Women.com, a Web site for women. A typical fashion magazine reader can’t afford the clothes or achieve the body depicted in these publications, she says. Peacock says women’s magazines have regressed in their portrayal of realistic body images since the heyday of Ms. magazine, which she helped, found with fellow feminists in the 1970s. They formed Ms. in reaction to the male-edited women’s magazines that dominated the market at the time. Today’s magazines “pay lip service to issues like anorexia, but it’s embedded in the advertising,” she says. But Peacock cautions against blaming the media outright for women’s self-esteem issues. Magazines may portray women in a manner that upsets the feminist consumer, though the problem can also be traced to the readers. Readers do not seem to understand that the images conveyed throughout the pages are not the norm. “The
problem is not the magazine, necessarily,” says Peacock. “The problem is also the readers. People don’t understand what physical freaks models are.”
The 90’s saw a new trend emerge dubbed “heroin chic” because of the ultra-thin, strung-out appearance of models like Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow, the look dominated
fashion capitals such as New York, London and Paris until trends began changing in early 1998. But with the popularity of heroin chic, came controversy over the dangers of becoming too thin. Though many have criticized the trend, young girls starved themselves trying to attain the waif-like figure. Even though heroin chic no longer dominates the market, women remain uncomfortable with the media’s depiction of their bodies. Though women speak up about this dissatisfaction, they still seem to be getting less and less happy about their appearance.
Society is brainwashing young people into believing that being thin is important and necessary. It’s unfortunate, but in today’s society, people have forgotten that it’s what’s inside a person that counts, not what’s on the outside. We need to start loving and accepting each other for who we are not what we look like. Next time you decide that you are going to start another diet because you feel you are too fat, stop; sign up for a self-esteem class instead. That would be money well spent. If we learn to love and accept ourselves, we will also begin to love our bodies, no matter what size we are.
We also need to teach our children to be proud of whom they are. We need to remind them that people come in all shapes and sizes, and we need to teach them to accept everyone for who they are. Parents need to also teach their children the value of healthy eating and not send the message that being thin is important. Many children, under the age of 10, are becoming obsessed with dieting and their bodies. They are afraid of becoming fat. They don’t just learn this
from the media; they also learn this from their parents. If their mothers are constantly dieting and expressing their desire to be thin, these young children will start to believe they also need to be thin. We need to encourage and support our children, especially teenagers. They need to feel good about themselves and their accomplishments, they need your approval and they need to
know that you are proud of them. If a child is raised to love and accept who they are and what they look like, they will be less likely to strive to fit into society’s unattainable standards.