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Issues for Men :: Cultural Roles :: The Media
Ballet Dancers :: In The Old Days
The Media

Exploring the role society and the media play in the development of an Eating Disorder and the Media Influence on Eating Disorders.

Searching for the Perfect Body
by: Heather Mudgett (Suite101.com)

Eating Disorders and the Media
by: Karyn, Leah, Gina, Evelyn, & Melissa

Combating negative and distorted images of women

The Media

Okay, so we all want to hear how Calvin Klein is the culprit and that the emaciated waif look has caused women to tale-spin into the world of Eating Disorders. While the images of child-like women has obviously contributed to an increased obsession to be thin, and we can't deny the media influence on eating disorders, there's a lot more to it than that. With approximately six billion people in the world, and a mere ten million of them suffering with some type of disordered eating (.18% of the overall population -- less than a � of 1%), the media obviously doesn't cause everyone to develop Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating. (Current statistics indicated that approximately one in every one hundred teenage girls may develop an Eating Disorder).

It is a lot more complex than blaming the media.
The media most certainly contributes to dieting and size discrimination
but Eating Disorders are NOT Diets!

From early-on children are taught by society that their looks matter. Think of the three and four year old who is continuously praised for being "oh so cute". With an increased population of children who spend a lot of time in front of television, there are more of them coming up with a superficial sense of who they are. Images on T.V. spend countless hours telling us to lose weight, be thin and beautiful, buy more stuff because people will like us and we'll be better people for it. Programming on the tube rarely depicts men and women with "average" body-types or crappy clothes, ingraining in the back of all our minds that this is the type of life we want. Overweight characters are typically portrayed as lazy, the one with no friends, or "the bad guy", while thin women and pumped-up men are the successful, popular, sexy and powerful ones. How can we tell our children that it's what's inside that counts, when the media continuously contradicts this message?

Super models in all the popular magazines have continued to get thinner and thinner. Modeling agencies have been reported to actively pursue Anorexic models. The average woman model weighs up to 25% less than the typical woman and maintains a weight at about 15 to 20 percent below what is considered healthy for her age and height. Some models go through plastic surgery, some are "taped-up" to mold their bodies into more photogenic representations of themselves, and photos are airbrushed before going to print. By far, these body types and images are not the norm and unobtainable to the average individual, and far and wide, the constant force of these images on society makes us believe they should be. We need to remind ourselves and each other constantly (especially children) that these images are fake.

Diet advertisements are another problem. On television, in magazines and newspapers, we are continually exposed to the notion that losing weight will make us happier and it will be through "THIS diet plan". Time and time again it has been proven that, for the long-term, regimented diet plans DO NOT work, yet our society continues to buy into the idea that they do. Pop-culture's imposed definition of "the ideal body" combined with the diet industry's drive to make more money, creates a never-ending cycle of ad upon ad that try to convince us "...if you lose weight, your life will be good." The flip side is that as long as we continue to buy into their false claims by purchasing these (often dangerous) products, the more the diet industry will keep pushing their slogans at us.

From the About-Face organization: "400-600 advertisements bombard us everyday in magazines, on billboards, on tv, and in newspapers. One in eleven has a direct message about beauty, not even counting the indirect messages."

While all of these images, advertisements, and messages may be counterproductive to a good self-image, and society's overall acceptance of each person's different size and shape, they are NOT the reason so many men and women develop an Eating Disorder. These images may not help, and for those already open to the possibility of negative coping mechanisms and/or mental illness, the media may play a small contributing role -- but ultimately, if a young man or woman's life situation, environment, and/or genetics leave them open to an Eating Disorder (or alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, OCD, etc.), they will still end up in the same place regardless of television or magazines. Ultimately it's important to know that Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating are NOT about weight and food. Rather they are complex disorders where each sufferer is plagued with low self-esteem, an inability to cope with their own emotions and stress, and many underlying issues that have lead them to their disordered eating.


Barbie-type dolls have often been blamed on playing a role in the development of body-image problems and Eating Disorders. Not only do these dolls have fictionally proportioned, small body sizes, but they lean towards escalating the belief that materialistic possessions, beauty and thinness equate happiness. Barbie has more accessories available to purchase than can be believed, including Ken, her attractive boyfriend. She has an assortment of jobs including: Potty-training her sister Kelly, princess and more recently, Dentist (in which she wears a mini-skirt and has enough hair that her patients would choke). While I personally do NOT believe every girl that has a Barbie-type doll is at risk of disordered eating, I do believe it helps to perpetuate an ideal of materialism, beauty, and being thin as important elements to happiness in one's life. At an age where children are very impressionable and seek to be like the role models around them, it's important to emphasize that they are pretend. If your kids want these dolls (and lots of kids do), they should learn to rely on their imagination in playing with Barbie creatively (we often have her driving a dump truck or fixing the car in our house). In general, children need to be exposed to a variety toys, and provided with well-rounded choices. Most importantly, they need to see in real-life the true role models such as doctors, teachers, women and men in history, artists, writers, and moms and dads.

Society and Culture

In addition to the media, part of the societal problems are a result of lack of education. Girls and boys need to be aware of the changes their bodies go through during puberty and why, and as well, why they should feel proud of their bodies no matter what size or shape.

People in societal "pop-culture", whether consciously or subconsciously, perpetuate the ideal of thinness through their conversations, judgments and teasing of their peers and other family members. The associate of shame with weight, as women tend to not want to disclose what they weigh, or do not want to be seen in "this bathing-suit" or "that pair of shorts" contributes to the sense that they should be ashamed of their body size. The chronic passive obsession about weight within families (wife asks husband "do I look fat in this?"), and within circles of friends (first time seeing someone in a while, the comment: "you've gained/lost weight!") continues to emphasize the idea that how we look and what we weigh is of utmost importance. Many of us blame the magazines and diet ads, while we walk around guilty of the same "crimes".

A high percentage of the American culture falls into one of two categories. Couch potato or exercise freak. There is no consistent example set to our children that moderate regular exercise is good for us and essential for our health. They either see us rigorously obsessed with burning calories and fat, or neglecting our bodies through lack of activity. We also live in the age of the video game and the internet where many of our children spend countless hours in front of Nintendo or watching as their parents sit at the computer for hours on end. It is important to encourage your kids to go outside and play and to teach them about exercise. They need to know that there is such a thing as too much or too little. The best thing you can do for your children is to take walks as a family four or five days per week, because "it's good for our bodies and because it's fun".

A recent study by a popular television news program investigated the pursuit of a professional career, and how looks play a role. Two men and two women were sent out in search of jobs (one of each was considered more attractive than the other, and their looks were accentuated up or down with make-up). Both dressed well and had equal qualifications. Each time the "more attractive" man or woman, though equally well-spoken, amicable and qualified, was immediately invited back for a return interview, or hired right away. Looks and weight have continued to play a role in whether a person is hired, or is able to be promoted, especially in women. Professional women are often expected to be thin, well-dressed, and attractive. You should visit the International Size Acceptance Association about the topic of fighting size discrimination.

Link: About Face

Link: Eating Disorders and the Media

Specific Groups in Society

Because of society's historical role in setting what is perceived as the "standard" for the average individual, the same is true of specific groups of individuals. Listed below are additional reasons to the ones above why teens, college students, dancers and athletes are at risk.

Ballet Dancers/Dancers:

When you think of a ballet dancer or dancer you think immediately of a slender individual. In addition to the pressures of staying thin, dancers are faced with the stress of achieving perfection for performance, often with hours of exercise and rehearsals. There is also sometimes additional pressures from the instructor to maintain and/or lose weight that become unreasonable. Because of these additional factors in the life of dancers this can put them at an increased risk of developing disordered eating patterns. In 1997 a young ballerina by the name of Heidi Guenther died of fatal heart attack as the result of her Eating Disorder. She was 22.
Link: Incidence Rate of Anorexia in Ballet Dancers

Gymnasts and Figure Skaters:

In a desperate attempt to fit the profile and stay thin, as well as to please judges in competition, gymnasts and figure skaters are at an elevated risk of developing an Eating Disorder. As with dancers, the stresses of perfection in competition contribute to hours of rigorous practice. Gymnast Christy Henrich died from complications due to her Eating Disorder in 1994, at 22 years of age. Nadia Comaneci, Cathy Rigby and Kathy Johnson have all come forward and admitted to battling with Anorexia and Bulimia.
Link: Athletes
Link: Figure Skaters

Teens and College Student:

Adolescence is a time of confusion when teens are often trying to discover who they are as they journey closer to adulthood. They face increased independence, life choices and new friendships and they begin to date and seek acceptance from the opposite sex and their peers... All of this while their bodies are changing and their hormones are raging! This combined with any additional problems in their family, friends or new relationships can easily put teens at a higher risk for an Eating Disorder.
Link: Teens

College students are feeling pressures to succeed. Additional stress factors include making new friends, moving away from home for the first time, and a new sense of independence and freedom combined with confusion and fear. There is a heavier work load expected of them and late-night studying and cramming, as well as a new sense of having to be responsible for taking care of their own meals in-between it all. This is usually one of the first major turning points they face as young adults, requiring a time of adjustment that can send them into a tale-spin. It is easy to see why Eating Disorders in college students continue to be on the rise.
Link: College Students

Calvin Klein is a registered trademark of Calvin Klein.
Barbie is a registered trademark of the Mattel Corporation.

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