Media Influence on Eating Disorders

Are eating disorders caused by the media?

teen girl watching tv
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If you pay attention to mainstream Western media, you'll no doubt see that the media portrays thin body types as the most desirable, and that dieting is marketed as a way to achieve that desirable body.

In fact, millions of dollars are spent each year marketing both the beauty and diet industries. This results in a constant barrage of images and messages (both written and verbal) discouraging men and women from being satisfied with their bodies and encouraging them to change their appearance.

How does this constant barrage of messages affect us? Does it cause or influence eating disorders or other dangerous behaviors?

The answer may be "yes." Research does support the idea that there is a familial, genetic component to eating disorders, but it also supports the idea that the media plays an important role in the creation of eating disorders.

Study Shows TV Is an Influence

What happens when girls who have never been exposed to Western television before suddenly start watching it? Researchers actually had the chance to find out.

In 2002, a landmark study was published that assessed the influence of television on eating attitudes and behaviors in Fijian girls. The Fiji islands didn't have Western television prior to 1995, and therefore provided researchers with the chance to truly see how attitudes and behaviors changed once TV arrived.

The culture of Fiji traditionally values curvy bodies.

Large appetites are encouraged, and dieting is discouraged. In 1995, adolescent girls were surveyed and it was found that virtually none of them reported dieting in order to lose weight, and none of the girls reported self-induced vomiting. In 1998, after three years of exposure to Western television, the survey was repeated with the following results:

  • 11.3% indicated self-induced vomiting to control weight
  • 69% reported dieting
  • 74% reported feeling "too big or fat at least some of the time"

Girls who lived in a house with a television set were three times more likely to experience disordered eating behaviors than those who didn't. Although it is difficult to generalize these results to all other cultures, the study shows that the media, television in particular, does impact body image and eating behaviors.

Impact of the Internet and Social Media

Recent years have seen a proliferation of online images known as "thinspiration" or thinspos. These are primarily found on pro-eating disorder websites, although they have been popping up on more mainstream sites as well. Research has shown that viewing such images results in a lowered caloric intake and lower self-esteem.

There have also been surveys released that indicate that using social media sites, such as Facebook, puts adolescent girls more at risk for eating disorders. It also places everyone at risk for feeling poorly about themselves and dissatisfied with their bodies.

More research is needed in this area, but it is reasonable to believe that frequent use of social media does affect how a person views themselves.

Fashion Magazines' Impact

The majority of research in print media and eating disorders has centered around fashion magazines, as they regularly portray photographs of unrealistically thin models who have often been extensively Photoshopped.

Research has shown that adolescent girls who regularly read and look at fashion magazines are two to three times more likely to diet to lose weight because of an article. One study, which surveyed girls from grades 5-12, found that:

  • 69% of girls report that "magazine pictures influence their idea of the perfect body shape"
  • 47% report "wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures"

Although many people with eating disorders are obsessed with losing weight and becoming thin, research also shows that high levels of concern about weight, dieting and a desire to look like models or celebrities is an indicator for an increased risk for binge-eating. It is essential for people of all ages to learn to critically view the media and its messages.

Sources:

Becker, A.E., Burwell, R.A., Gilman, S.E., Herzog, D.B., & Hamburg, P. (2002). Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 509-514.

The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. (2012). Public survey conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt finds Facebook use impacts the way many people feel about their bodies. Accessed April 12, 2012 at http://eatingdisorder.org/assets/images/uploads/pdfs/22- publicsurvey.pdf

Field, A.E., Javaras, K.M., Anjea, P., Kitos, N., Camargo, C.A., Taylor, C.B., & Laird N.M. (2008). Family, peer, and media predictors of becoming eating disordered. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, 162(6), 574-579.

Field, A.E., Cheung, L., Wolf, A.M., Herzog, D.B., Gortmaker, S.L., & Colditz, G.A. (1999). Exposure to the mass media and weight concerns among girls. Pediatrics, 103(3).

Jett, S., LaPorte, D.J., & Wanchisn, J. (2010). Impact of exposure to pro-eating disorder websites on eating behaviour in college women. European Eating Disorders Review, 18, 410-416.

University of Haifa. (2011). Facebook users more prone to eating disorders. Accessed April 12, 2012 at http://newmedia-eng.haifa.ac.il/?p=4522

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