The Media's Influence on Eating Disorders

Are eating disorders caused by the media?

back of young woman's head using a smartphone while watching TV.


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If you pay attention to mainstream Western media, you'll no doubt see that the media sends a strong message that thin, white, and able bodies are the most desirable and that all other bodies have less value. Furthermore, beauty products and diets are marketed, especially to women, 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 is complicated. Research supports the idea that there is a familial, genetic component to eating disorders, but it also indicates that the current sociocultural climate, of which the media is a part, plays a role in the development and maintenance of eating disorders. It can certainly be harder to recover from an eating disorder when one is faced with constant media images of very thin people or television shows putting larger bodies through abuse and torturous routines in order to lose weight.

Study Shows TV Is an Influence on Eating Disorders

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.

A follow-up study showed that even 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 such 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 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 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 are an indicator for an increased risk for all eating disorders. Since no one is immune to eating disorders, it is essential for people of all ages to learn to critically view the media and its messages.

Media literacy training has the goal of helping people to become critical when looking at media and may be able to buffer some of these influences. To learn more about media literacy as it applies to body image, check out About-Face and Proud2BMe.

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Article 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • University of Haifa. (2011). Facebook Users More Prone to Eating Disorders.

  • Mabe, Annalise G., K. Jean Forney, and Pamela K. Keel. 2014. “Do You ‘like’ My Photo? Facebook Use Maintains Eating Disorder Risk.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 47 (5): 516–23. doi:10.1002/eat.22254.