The Media's Influence on Eating Disorders

If you pay attention to mainstream media, you'll undoubtedly find that it often sends a strong message that thin, white, and able bodies are the most desirable and, by extension, that all other bodies have less value. Furthermore, beauty products and diets are marketed, especially to women, as a way to achieve that so-called desired 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 discouraging men and women from being satisfied with their bodies and encouraging them to change their appearance.

How does this messaging affect us? Does it cause or influence eating disorders or other similar dangerous behaviors?

The answer is complicated. Research supports the idea that there is a familial, genetic component to eating disorders, but it also indicates that the current socio-cultural environment (which includes the media) plays a role in the development and maintenance of eating disorders. It can certainly be harder to recover from an eating disorder when you're faced with constant media images of very thin people or television shows putting people with larger bodies through intense and sometimes torturous routines in order to lose weight.

Study Shows TV Has an Influence on Eating Disorders

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 access to mainstream television prior to 1995, which gave researchers the chance to truly see how attitudes and behaviors changed once TV arrived.

Fijian culture traditionally values curvy bodies. Large appetites are encouraged, while 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. Additionally, 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 with regard to all other cultures, the study shows that the media (and television in particular) does have an impact on body image and eating behaviors.

A follow-up study showed that just having friends who watched television could also increase the risk of eating disorder symptoms.

Impact of the Internet and Social Media on Eating Disorders

Recent years have seen a proliferation of online images known as "thinspiration" or "thinspo." 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 these images results in a lowered caloric intake and lower self-esteem.

There have also been studies that indicate that using social media sites, such as Facebook, puts adolescent girls and women at greater risk for disordered eating. It also places everyone at risk of 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 on Eating Disorders

The majority of research in print media and eating disorders has centered around fashion magazines, as they regularly feature photographs of unrealistically thin models that 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"

A Word From Verywell

Research shows that high levels of concern about weight, dieting, and a desire to look like models or celebrities are all indicators for an increased risk for all eating disorders. While it's nearly impossible to avoid media influence with today's technology, media literacy education can provide the tools needed to critically evaluate and question the messages we receive and mitigate their negative effects.

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