The Media and Eating Disorders: It’s not what you think

The National Eating Disorder Association supplies this infographic to educate people about the media’s role in contributing to the dangerous level of body dissatisfaction in our society:  Media Literacyinfographic2_13

Among other things, it points out that the more young people are exposed to media messages, the more likely they are to be concerned about their appearance. I don’t doubt it. I know that on some level, seeing perfectly portrayed people on television and in magazines all the time certainly makes me feel more than a little insecure about my plain Jane appearance. I like to think I’m immune to media influence, but it’s hard not to worry about what you look like in a culture where one’s level of attractiveness seems to determine his or her worth as a person. So while I don’t dispute the media’s impact in that capacity, I think something that goes largely unnoticed is the way the media discusses the very problem it perpetuates. Specifically, I’m disturbed by the way the media portrays eating disorders.

I realize some people think there’s a glamorization of eating disorders going on in our society, but I’ve noticed quite the opposite. One need look no further than the recent hot topic of whether or not the latest winner of “The Biggest Loser” has an eating disorder to see it at play. Hundreds of news outlets are speculating on the status of this woman’s mental health, and somehow I doubt it’s out of concern. Now, I can’t comment on the specifics as I’ve never once watched the show, but that’s beside the point. This woman is merely the latest person to be caught up in the media’s obsession with “do they or don’t they.” It’s a ridiculous game that in my mind benefits absolutely no one. We all know there are myriad celebrities who have struggled or still struggle with some type of eating disorder. Some are open about it, but a larger number aren’t. And who can blame them when the media goes after them as though conducting some sort of witch hunt? Magazine covers accuse people of having an eating disorder as though it were some sort of wretched condition they should be ashamed of. I don’t know about you, but sensationalist headlines along the lines of “Is Renee Zellweger anorexic? Actress addresses rumors…” and “Biggest loser winner denies eating disorder accusations” just rub me the wrong way. Accusations? Rumors? When did this all become a criminal trial?

Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. This obsession with an individual’s weight — no matter their size — needs to stop. I don’t see anyone writing flashy headlines about people suffering from physical illnesses. I mean, have you ever seen  “Actor denies allegations of being diabetic,” or “Does so and so have a heart murmur?” splashed across any front pages lately?  What’s more, in their eagerness to make clear that eating disorders are not healthy, sometimes even well meaning people end up making those of us who are still struggling with one feel pretty shitty. Criticizing anyone‘s appearance is hurtful, regardless of the intention. In case you’ve overlooked the title I chose for this blog, let’s just say I’m of the belief that negativity in any form tends to do more harm than good.  So when eating disorders are characterized as “gross,” “ugly” and “disgusting,” I fear it may only serve to drive more people who are struggling with one to keep silent. Granted, I’ll also be the first to tell you that although I’m actively working to recover from my eating disorder, I’m still (at least in my eyes) noticeably thin, so perhaps I’m just being sensitive, but I think there’s more to it. Body shaming in any form is wrong, plain and simple. You just don’t do it. Tell people eating disorders are deadly, tell them how they’re hurting their bones, their hearts, their muscles, but don’t tell them they’re ugly. I’ve found that no matter how different someone looks on the outside, we’re all incredibly alike on the inside. And no one likes to be criticized.

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5 thoughts on “The Media and Eating Disorders: It’s not what you think

      • Ah, I see. Thanks for explaining.
        I agree, I think in every situation there’s always the possibility that things could be “worse,” so to speak. I hesitate, though, to make comparisons between different illnesses. Who’s to say which is “worse,” really? A disease of the body or of the mind? I wouldn’t presume to know the answer. We’re all fighting our own battles, and no one’s path is easy.
        I would also argue that an eating disorder isn’t entirely a choice, and that just because someone is still struggling doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be, but I suppose everyone’s experience is different.
        Thanks again for offering your perspective.

  1. Hmm… not sure either cause of extreme thinness is preferable, or that the “choice” to be thin as the result of an eating disorder is a true one. With a physical illness like cancer, though, there is of course less “choice” in recovery.

    Also… the media flogging/debates about potential eating disorder sufferers also infuriates me. Not only would it be socially unacceptable to publicly debate the existence of a physical illness, like diabetes, most people have a greater respect for other mental illnesses, too. Can you imagine headlines questioning whether someone is suffering from depression? If thinness weren’t so idealized in our society I don’t think this problem would exist.

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