Media’s Effect on Body Image and Eating Disorders
Being voluptuous was a sign of wealth and beauty. Women were not obsessed with diet fads, or trying to look a certain way, but were more concerned with eating healthy and were comfortable with the natural body shape given to them by God. Since 1970, eating disorders have increased by 400% (Rader). What has happened since then to shift the emphasis from a healthy feeling of self worth to a need to fit the description of the standard set by the media? The media realized that fit people sell products, and suddenly being stick thin has become the standard for being considered attractive.
It has become more popular to have thin models in magazines and on TV commercials, and as time has passed it seems as if the models are getting thinner and more emaciated. Now, it is seen everywhere in our society, and there is no way to avoid it. False ideas about body image are portrayed everywhere, giving people distorted ideas about reality and causing several problems.
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To illustrate how much emphasis is constantly placed on appearance, an article found in the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center states that “one out of every four television commercials send out some sort of message about attractiveness” (Body Image).
Teenage girls are striving to look a way that is not even realistic and are taking drastic measures to reach their desired body weight. Unfortunately, when these teens realize they are not achieving it the way they had hoped, body dissatisfaction begins and often leads to eating disorders. Eating disorders are a serious health problem that is rapidly increasing in the United States each and every day. Not only are they seen in women, they are additionally found in men as well. Researchers at Harvard University Medical School have new data that suggests that up to 25 percent of adults with eating disorders are male (General Information).
Due to that information, it is obvious that eating disorders are less frequent in men, but in no way are they absent. The rationale for this difference in genders may perhaps be because of the way society views males and females. When reading an article by the National Eating Disorders Association, it has been seen that clinics and counselors see many more females than males, but that may be because males are reluctant to confess having what has become known as a “women’s problem. Also, health professionals do not expect to see eating disorders in males and may therefore under diagnose them (Eating Disorders Information). “Because eating disorders have been described as female problems, males are often exceedingly reluctant to admit that they are in trouble and need help. In addition, most treatment programs and support groups have been designed for females and are populated exclusively by females. Males report feeling uncomfortable and out of place in discussions of lost menstrual periods, women’s socio-cultural issues, female-oriented advertising, and similar topics” (General Information).
Besides adults having struggles with the issue of body image, whether it is men or women, it seems as if more children at younger ages are beginning to develop abnormal eating patterns in order to achieve a certain body weight. Young girls tend to pick up the message from their parents, the media, and role models that to be thin is not only desirable, it is required. An interesting statistic found in a book written by Carolyn Costin states that “studies have shown that 70% to 80% of fourth graders report being on diets (Costin).
When Dr. Jonathon Rader performed a study using young children he discovered that when preschool girls were offered dolls identical in every respect except weight, they preferred the thin doll 9 times out of 10 (Rader). Girls are indoctrinated at a very young age that the well known Barbie doll is how a woman is supposed to look, which includes no fat, but large breasts, and due to that false view of a woman’s body, it is more than likely that young girls today will approach puberty with a negative body image.
Although children can develop eating disorders as early as 6 years old, it is typically the teen years where it becomes out of control. Dr. Jonathon Rader says that “more than half of teenaged girls are, or think they should be, on diets. They want to lose all or some of the forty pounds that females naturally gain between 8 and 14. About three percent of these teens go too far, becoming anorexic or bulimic” (Rader). Almost everyone has heard of the terms “anorexic” and “bulimic” whether it was on TV or in a magazine, but not many eople know the true facts and dangers that go along with them. They also might not even realize that there are other types of eating disorders that people are dealing with, some of which are not even specified. Exactly what are eating disorders? The Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center’s website was very informative when describing the definitions, causes, effects, and symptoms of each and every type of eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is the proper term used, and it is one of the most common types of eating disorders.
It occurs in people who are terrified of getting fat and gaining weight when in reality they are typically extremely under weight as it is. They refuse to maintain a normal body weight, and do that by not eating, eating a significantly less amount than recommended, and often over exercising. When young people are anorexic, it delays puberty for both sexes, and girls do not menstruate at the appropriate age. In addition, anorexia nervosa results in depression, irritability, withdrawal from friends, family, and activities, compulsive rituals involved with food, and strange eating patterns.
Bulimia nervosa: also known as the diet-binge-purge disorder is pretty self explanatory. The person diets, becomes hungry, and then binge eats in response to powerful cravings and feelings of deprivation. They often feel out of control when eating, but have such a fear of gaining weight which causes them to do anything possible to undo the binge. Methods used to “undo the binge” include vomiting, misusing laxatives, exercising profusely, and fasting to get rid of the calories.
People with bulimia nervosa often begin to act with little thought of the consequences. For example, they may shoplift, be promiscuous, and abuse alcohol, drugs and credit cards. They typically engage in risk-taking behavior and have other problems with impulse control. Although bulimics put on a brave front majority of the time, they are often depressed, lonely and ashamed. Their feelings almost always include deeply- buried anger and self- doubt, even though most would never know it due to the act they are capable of putting on.
Binge eating disorder is completely opposite of anorexia nervosa, and is similar to bulimia nervosa with the exception of getting rid of the food they have consumed. Binge eaters usually have a history of failed diets, which causes them to lose hope, thus resulting in eating rapidly, secretly, and sometimes all day long. They feel out of control during a binge, but yet feel guilty and ashamed for binge eating. Most people with this eating disorder are extremely depressed and obese. There are reasons that people binge eat, which may not be understood by others but it is usually to comfort themselves or numb emotional pain.
Information reported in the March 2003 New England Journal of Medicine on the EDReferral website suggests that for some people, but not all, a genetic flaw in combination with lifestyle factors can predispose to binge eating and subsequent obesity (Body Image). Not only do psychological problems exist with eating disorders, but the medical effects are on a much greater scale, and are sometimes even fatal. A few examples of some medical complications include cardiac arrest, kidney and liver damage, loss of muscle mass, destruction of teeth and hair, delayed growth, and a weakened immune system.
In one study performed by the National Professional Resource Network, researchers asked women to reduce their caloric intake by 50%. After 15 weeks, the activity of their natural killer cells (a part of the immune system that combats viruses) fell 20% (Rader). Yes, a weakened immune system is a very unpleasant health issue that comes with eating disorders, but each of the effects just listed typically result in death, which is the worst consequence of them all. People with eating disorders often know the effects and consequences they are heading toward, but it does not seem change their habits of disordered eating.
This makes it extremely baffling to those with normal eating patterns because it seems as if someone knows the consequences of their actions, they would not do it anymore, but unfortunately it is not that simple. There is not one designated answer as to what causes someone to develop an eating disorder, but there are many theories and interwoven factors that help explain what goes on in the mind of a person suffering from this disease. Many times, they have feelings of inadequacy, emptiness, low self esteem, or the necessity to be in control of their surroundings.
Besides the psychological components mentioned, interpersonal factors play a huge role in the development of disordered eating and views on body image, whether it be due to family disharmony and troubled interpersonal relationships, or issues they faced in the past such as being ridiculed for size and weight, or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Anything of that nature would be very traumatic to a person and could be more easily understood for having an eating disorder, but not every person with one has had a traumatic experience in his or her life, so what exactly is the cause or the remaining people with eating disorders? They are simply believing in a myth: a myth that is portrayed everywhere that being thin is the most important quality to have, and everyone should have it. It is hard to believe that people just decide by themselves that there is a certain way to look without having any sort of influence on the matter. This “influence” should be promoting positive messages to our society, when in actuality it is giving people false hopes and ideas about life, relationships, and body image.
The media is the main cause for distorted views of body image and when seeking the opinion of a professional on the matter, licensed counselor Ellen Ferry states “the media has such a great effect on body image because it is everywhere. There is not anywhere in our society that stick thin models are not posted on billboards, TV commercials, magazine covers, and so on. When the media’s messages about being thin are everywhere, it is almost impossible to be avoided and ignored” (Ferry).
The media is fully aware of the amount of TV watched, and magazines read by Americans each day, making it easier for them to target such groups. Unfortunately, rather than giving supportive advice in these magazines about eating healthy and being fit, they are putting pictures of unrealistic model figures and tips on how they can achieve an identical shape. The message underlying the articles in these magazines is that one’s outward appearance should be the primary concern. Not only fashion magazines are guilty of this, but even so-called health magazines can contribute to the problem.
It is said by the National Eating Disorders Association that “five years after reading magazine articles about dieting, teenage girls were more likely to control weight by fasting, vomiting, smoking cigarettes, or abusing laxatives than girls who never read such articles. ” Female models have been getting thinner and thinner over the past 100 years. A century ago, the ideal body shape for a woman was fleshy and full-figured. Now, models spend a large percentage of their days engaged in activities that manipulate or shape their bodies, and photographs of models are almost always modified or enhanced in some way (Eating Disorders Information).
With these media images and body ideals, it is little wonder that women and men feel inadequate, ashamed, and dissatisfied with how they look. Carolyn Costin states that statistically “the average woman is 5’4″ tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds. Most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women” (Costin). This unrealistic portrayal of physical attractiveness it not a difficult one to assess; it is simply a case of the media creating a need that isn’t naturally occurring.
The images seen in these advertisements are often associated with success, power, wealth, and happiness, supposedly gained by using certain products. It often appears that the media is extremely hypocritical concerning the issues of eating disorders and body image in several ways. Just recently it has become politically correct for the media to make some sort of effort to combat eating disorders such as making fun of celebrities and models struggling with eating issues to portray that it is not how someone desires to look.
It has been seen in magazine articles and TV shows featuring the effects and heartbreak of anorexia and bulimia, but these efforts become ineffective when they are presented in the usual context. For example, how can one believe that a fashion magazine is truly motivated to combat anorexia when their articles about that subject are surrounded by advertisements featuring stick- thin models? How can one believe that the talk show hostess is truly in favor of strong, healthy female bodies when she frequently prods her anorexic looking body and talks about how much she wants to lose weight from her already thin frame?
Because of these hypocritical portrayals of body image, it is almost impossible for people to be satisfied with their natural bodies and be proud of what they were born with. Sometimes the media make it seem as though people can completely control their own body size and can achieve the “ideal” thinness that is portrayed, but in fact, to a certain extent, the size and shape of a person’s body is as genetically determined as skin and eye color.
It is very important to be aware of how screwy modern beauty standards have become, because if it is not recognized that this beauty ideal is unhealthy and unnatural, there is no way to have a realistic view of a healthy body. Due to the media’s strong influential power, it is hardly controversial to say that society has an unhealthy obsession with images of beauty, good looks, and the idea of perfection. In American culture there is a great amount of emphasis placed on body weight, size, and appearance.
Because of this, our society is conditioned from a very young age to believe that self-worth is derived from these external characteristics. For example, being thin is somehow associated with being “successful, beautiful, strong, and self-disciplined. ” On the other hand, being “fat” is associated with being “lazy, ignorant, weak, and lacking will-power. ” These stereotypes are prevalent in our society; and they are reinforced by the media, our family and friends, and even well-respected health professionals.
As a result, others are unfairly judged and labeled based on their weight and size alone. Media has made society believe that being thinner or more muscular will bring happiness, success, and acceptance by others. Cultural differences also play a role in body image. Numerous research studies on body image have shown that girls that are from ethnic backgrounds such as Afro-American and Chinese-Americans, for example showed to have a higher self-esteem relating to their body image compared to those of young white American girls in the same age group (Eating Disorders Information).
The reason is that few of the girls from these ethnic backgrounds rarely compared themselves to the images displayed in the magazines or television; they did not view these figures as realistic role models. The media is doing grave damage to the way that young girls view beauty, but this image could be reversed by positive affirmations by older women who inspire their young lives. Positive affirmation should be given to young girls in regards to their body image when ever possible.
Although it is difficult to totally avoid the media’s negative messages, there are ways that people can have a healthy view of themselves despite this disillusionment. One of the ways to protect self-esteem and body image from the often narrow definitions of beauty and acceptability is to become a critical viewer of the messages that our society is bombarded with each day. Media messages about body shape affect the way people feel about their appearance, but only if they allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to believe it.
Some other ways that people can have a healthy body image is to focus on the positives, put energy use to something more constructive than the latest diet fads, be a critical media consumer, and most importantly, live a healthy lifestyle. It is very obvious that media plays a major role in body image and eating disorders. The fad begins with a diet, or wanting to look a certain way that was seen somewhere in the media, when before long it tends to get out of control leading to a full blown eating disorder.
Of course, the media alone is not the only thing to blame, but it is certainly a contributing factor that affects the majority of Americans daily. Fortunately, with the help and support of friends and family, it is possible to fight the negative messages portrayed in our society and live a healthy and happy life. What is important to realize is that unrealistic advertisements are posted all around society as a means for the media to make a profit, not to strengthen one’s self worth. When people begin to fully comprehend this counterfeit strategy, the focus will stray from the effort to be thin and lean more towards to effort to be healthy. .