Thursday, January 10, 2008

Eating Disorders, Body Image and Thin Women in the Media

Back in December, when I was busy finishing finals, wrapping gifts and eating as many cookies as I could bake, the Daily Mail reported on a recent study showing that the brains of anorexics are "wired differently" from those of non-anorexics. As one of the researchers stated, "This means they react and think in different way to the ordinary person and that they are likely to go to develop anorexia regardless of whether they have been exposed to images of superthin models." He went on to argue that if images of thin women in the media were to blame, "we'd have hundreds of thousands of anorexics." The article concludes by encouraging readers to stop blaming supermodels for eating disorders.

I somewhat agree with these statements, but I think the underlying sentiment is very off-base. People often forget that anorexia and bulimia are psychiatric disorders that individuals don't just "catch" after suffering bouts of low self-esteem or growing out of an initially healthy desire to lose weight. Anorexics are often told just to "snap out of it" and be happy with their bodies, though their disorder is something they have very little control over. There's a reason why so many individuals with the disorder remain chronically ill their whole lives, despite the debilitating physical and mental side-effects.

I think the media, with its tendency to focus on the extremes of every debate, often ends up concluding that either the idealization of super-thin women is the cause of eating disorders, or that eating disorders are biological and cannot be blamed on the fashion or publishing industries. The media is always either contributing to a deathly illness or totally blameless. But I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Certainly looking at a picture of an unhealthy model will not lead you to develop anorexia. But if you already have an eating disorder and you're constantly bombarded with messages saying that thin is beautiful, sexy and desirable, it only reinforces your beliefs.

Eating disorders affect only a small percentage of the population, so perhaps it's more useful to discuss this issue in terms of how the media's portrayal of women's bodies influences the self-image of the millions of women who don't have eating disorders. Does our society's obsession with thinness, our glorifying of women whose bodies are closer to gaunt than the picture of health, the very specific type of beauty celebrated in magazines and movies, encourage women and girls to have a healthy relationship with their bodies? I certainly don't think so.

There are many women out there who argue that it's ridiculous for anyone to compare themselves to supermodels or starlets, that they've never done such a thing and have always been content with their bodies. If this is you, I say that you're very lucky. Because in my experience, most women experience some kind of body insecurity at some point in their lives (if not their whole lives), and compare their regular selves to the "perfect" women they see in magazines and on TV. They want society to consider them beautiful, but when they don't resemble any of the "beautiful" women they watch and read about, it's difficult not to compare yourself and decide that you're not good enough.

I think we also spend a lot of time discussing other women's looks and comparing them. Whether you're at the cafeteria talking about how good another girl at work looks since she dyed her hair and lost weight, or sitting at the nail salon flipping through US Weekly with a friend and commenting on how bad such-and-such celebrity is looking, we talk about other women in these terms all the time. The media, with the barrage of stories about losing the baby weight, reporting on every pound gained and lost by actresses and constant analysis of the bodies of famous women, certainly doesn't do anything to discourage this type of conversation.

I think that even the most confident and self-assured women have moments of doubt sometimes, days where they don't feel good about how they look. All the studies in the world might show that you won't get an eating disorder from reading Vogue, but that doesn't mean that people don't feel a little less beautiful when they look at the perfect bodies of supermodels and actresses.

What do you think?


merry said...

I agree totally! Eating disorders are mental health issues, and the media ideal reinforces their beliefs but does not cause the illness. For the general public, being bombarded with airbrushed images of "perfection" contribute to body image doubts and struggles.

a said...

Total agreement. I think I'd add that maybe many women who are bombarded with images of Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller, etc. don't develop eating disorders, but you couldn't tell me some of these people don't have disordered eating habits in a sad attempt to compensate for the so-called imperfection of their bodies.

maui-girl95 said...

I definitely think that eating disorders (both eating too much and too little) have underlying psychological issues. The air-brushed images or models and actresses don't help someone who already has body image issues.

I try to remember that for these models and actresses, it is their job to look good. If I had a lot of time and money, I could hire a personal trainer and chef and army of makeup people to make me look good!

Jennifer said...

Another issue with studies like this: studying the neurology of former anorexics compared to "normal" women just shows that brains of former anorexics work differently - knowing what a difference adequate healthy fat intake makes in my own mental health, I can't believe that at least some of that difference isn't due to damage inflicted on the poor brains after years of inadequate nutrition. (Caveat, I haven't actually read the studies, just media reports, and perhaps this was addressed by the scientists and not just mentioned by the journalists.)

Sybbis said...

I'm not sure eating disorders are really so rare. I don't think I know a single woman who hasn't gone through at least one period of seriously disordered eating before the age of 25, and most are at least slightly disordered the rest of the time. One has to remember that to actually get diagnosed as anorexic, you don't just need to be not eating--you also need to be below a certain weight for your height, and then lose your period. You can be a total mess and still not hit the DSM-IV-TR diagnosis criteria.

What I've found interesting in the reading that I've done is the concept that both overeating and not eating may be attempts by the brain to self-medicate--overeating for depression, not eating for anxiety. The impression I've gotten is that when seratonin levels are too high, we're inclined not to eat... and when they're too low, we want to eat everything not nailed down.

So there's already a tendency to that, which makes sense--anorexia existed before television and magazines and celebrity worship. It seems to be exaggerated, then, by what we see and hear about other people. But when you've got a population which is already full of men and women who are inclined to either depression or anxiety, or both, as most of us seem to be... that's a big impact it can have, overall.

Anonymous said...

i want know what the brain of an ordinary person does.

greeneyes said...

I think women compare themselves across the board with actresses and models, not just in terms of weight. Some women are more invested in this sort of thinking than others, but you're right: hardly any woman hasn't done it at one time or another.

As far as weight, eating disorders have been linked to OCD as well. The media isn't to blame for anorexia, but they sure don't help, when young girls are barraged daily with these images. They are presented with every possible chance to compare themselves. Hooray to companies like Lancome for choosing someone like Kate Winslet to represent their products...but only for her face. Girls need more positive images of normal women.

Princess Poochie said...

I agree that these issues are a mental health issue and that there is pressure all around to be thin and beautiful. But it's everywhere, not just media and models, I think. Heck, you get treated differently at work, stores, family members etc. Who wouldn't feel pressured? Some feel it more than others. And I sympathize with them.

But it also frustrates me that all we hear about is that girls are killing themselves and only focusing on the externals. Let's compete to be the smartest or best read. Is it so hard to just compete with yourself? Compare against yourself. Have I reached my goals, improved my mind, reached out to my community.

This is not a new struggle. We are a social species and very visual. We'll always be competing as we always have. Throughout history women have been judged on looks.

Anonymous said...

I am personally so sick & tired of hearing about skinny celebrities. I have been skinny all my life, and I would rather be a healthy weight with lots of curves. Why women think that being skinny is more attractive, is beyond my comprehension. You think seeing your ribs sticking out looks very nice? I now see a nutritionist who is helping me to try and get to the weight I'm supposed to be, but it's very hard as she explained my metabolism is very fast. Through the years, I have heard negative comments about my body, people asking if I have an eating disorder, being called "sticks" etc. They are mean, hateful comments that have caused me to have feelings of low self worth. I don't dare use a public washroom after a meal at a restaurant, for fear people will think that I'm going to throw up my meal. That's a sad state of affairs. I wish the media would stop focussing so much attention on these celebrities, because being skinny is not some miracle to happiness. It's just another way for men to get us to try and conform to a certain beauty ideal, like getting breast implants because we are "supposed" to have big boobs. Says who? I say all shapes & sizes belong in this world, and no one should be persecuted whether they be big or small. Why not focus on something important like world hunger or poverty?

q said...

After yoyoing with many eating disorders for the past 8 years (I'm 17), i can honestly say even I have no freaking clue.

I wouldn't say my brain is wired to one eating disorder in particular, as i've tried everything at one point or another, and I don't know if I think any different from the rest of you, but the media screwed me up bad.

It's not Keira Knightley and her 000 dress sizes that got to me, it's more of just the somewhat regular people who happen to be gorgeous and happen to have flat abs. The thing is, even at 67 pounds, with my parents telling me I'm a twig, I still think these regular people are much thinner than me.

I can't point my finger at Kate Moss and yell THIS IS YOUR FAULT, but I feel if maybe the presence of these beautiful thin people hadn't been present in my life, I would have eaten more than 600 calories today.

PS: Sorry for the dark and griseley post, and bad spelling, but I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in... and this is my favourite blog, keep it up.

Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances said...

I'm slightly overweight right now, but actually pretty o.k. with my body looks-wise. I don't have an eating problem except that I eat too fast and am a chocoholic.

Nevertheless, celebrities can be really intimidating, and I sometimes am a bit jealous.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be a stick figure. In fact, while bargain shopping for The Bargain Queens, I've come across a few models online that were so thin as to be... well.. kind of repulsive. It's not that they were ugly, more like weird, almost other worldly. I can't say whether they have eating disorders or health problems, but at a certain point, I really have to wonder why they're being hired as models since they certainly don't make me want to buy their clothes.

a said...

Although I'm not built like q (petite and curvy is how I would describe myself), I will say that the skinny people of all types catch loads of flack. You know how heavy girls are often criticized if they GASP! have cheese on their sandwich or order a regular Coke (okay, anyone deserves criticism for soda...that sh*t will kill you)? Skinny girls get it too. Wow, I can't believe you eat that much! Or, people pushing food on you constantly. Gee, forgive me for eating portions that are healthful, I'm sorry a giant bowl of pasta is too much. Or, people jokingly ask if you even eat. It's rude.

Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances said...

Good point A!

While I'm not a fan of extremely skinny models, I certainly have nothing against skinny people.

I have several friends that are very skinny and can't gain weight due to health problems or just high metabolisms. They've always gotten a lot of unsolicited advice -- but not from me. I try to avoid telling anyone what they should or shouldn't eat.

Zee said...

There is a superficial myth out there that women starve themselves, or purge what they eat, based on wanting to look like the super-thin models and actors we see all over the grocery store racks. But eating disorders have their roots much deeper than looks. They are often about control, or self-deception or denial. I am a former bulemic; my sister still struggles with anorexia. My issues were about control -- so much of my life was out of control, I subconsciously wanted to control what went into my body and how it came out. It was also about punishment -- I felt guilty.

For my sister, self-denial is the main culprit. She has felt -- due to guilt and young marriage to someone who continued to destroy her sense of self-worth -- for years that she is not worth eating good food. She satisfies her need to punish herself for all she believes she's not every time she feels hunger pangs.

I don't argue that our society has an unhealthy relationship with food (or lack thereof), but that does not -- especially by itself -- explain the eating disorder epidemic in our country. I find the suggestion that someone would do such damage to themselves for looks alone incredibly insulting.

cat said...

I don't know where to point the figure for my problems with my body. Yes, I've realized over the years that my perception of myself has fueled my obsessive relationship with food, and certain things about the way my body has failed me medically does not help. I am overweight, and I've always been horribly conscious of it. Every second of every day, how I look is in the back of my mind. I'm constantly thinking about food--reviewing what I ate, reviewing what I can eat, planning what I can eat for dinner as soon as I'm done with lunch, then ending up binging and feeling awful. I work out a lot, I lift, I am constantly attempting to improve my eating habits, but every day I wake up with this body is a disappointment. It isn't the media. I've always loved fashion and movies, but really...I do believe it's a mental health issue. If I had known before I hit college that the way I obsess is not normal, I could have had a much healthier time in junior high/high school.

Sorry to end up writing a blog about it.

Fabulously Broke in the City said...

I was unhappy with my body for a long time... rounded, large belly no matter how skinny the rest of my body was, and I'm quite flat chested to boot!

But I've learned to accept/love my body because while it's not perfect, as long as I'm healthy and happy (and BF happens to really love those features about me, to boot)... I'm fine with the way i look now.

WendyB said...

IMHO: As "they" (whoever "they" are) say, if you're crazy in France, you babble in French. If you're crazy in England you babble in English. Schizophrenics in the U.S. are likely to think they're Jesus, while those in Japan might think of themselves as grains of rice. Media images of women are part of the culture and that affects the symptoms of a mental disorder without necessarily creating the disorder, IMO. BTW, a lot of the Roman Catholic saints who martyred themselves via starvation are clearcut cases of anorexia. It's been around for far longer than Conde Nast has.

Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances said...

Great point WendyB!