Powerful Data Proves It: Media Messages Influence Eating Disorders in Women and Girls

Updated 29 weeks ago Special to HuntingtonNews.Net
Powerful Data Proves It: Media Messages Influence Eating Disorders in Women and Girls

It is estimated that women are some nine times more likely than men to suffer from eating disorders, the most common being anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Findings published in 1994 by the US National Institute of Health showed that just under 4% of women suffer from anorexia nervosa at some time in their lifetime while just over 4% suffer from bulimia nervosa.

Similar figures are repeated in many other developed countries around the world making eating disorders the third largest chronic illness to be found among young females; while it is estimated that a further 20% have an undiagnosed eating disorder. Significantly, eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness with up to 20% of anorexia sufferers dying prematurely from complications relating to their disorder. The vast majority of women overestimate their body size which could be due to unattainable standards of beauty and apparent body dysmorphia being attributable to media depictions of the ‘perfect’ body type. According to one study, almost 70% of girls claim that magazine models have influenced their view of the perfect body shape, while a People magazine survey in 2000 found that a majority of women felt insecure as a result of the depiction of women on television and in films.

In the earlier days of cinema and when television began to find its way into homes, the “ideal” female was portrayed with a fuller figure, vastly different to the slim and lithe figure so common today. At that time, actresses, models and mannequins more or less reflected the average woman’s size. But, year by year, these grew thinner, departing from the average woman’s physical form until nowadays many actresses and most models have a body mass index (BMI) commensurate with anorexia, and even the median plus-size model has come down dress sizes over the past decade.

One of the most significant investigations into the effects of television on the body image of young women was conducted in Fiji in 1998, just over three years after television was first introduced into the islands. Up till then, size had never been an issue but the research team, led by the Harvard Medical School’s Professor Anne E. Becker, found that following the introduction of television (which featured mainly programmes from Australia, Britain and the United States) some 15% of girls, whose average age was 17, admitted to deliberately vomiting to control weight while some 74% reported occasional feelings of being "too big and fat".

Advertisements, of course have a major impact on our lives. The average woman sees some 400 to 600 advertisements every day and, by the time she is 17 years old, has viewed over 250,000 commercial messages through the media. Although only around 10% of these advertisements refer directly to beauty, many implicitly emphasize the importance of beauty – particularly those aimed at women and girls. Even children are targeted – according to one study of Saturday morning advertisements for toys, half of those aimed at girls referred to physical attractiveness, while none of those aimed at boys referred to appearance. Other studies have found that around 50% of advertisements in magazines for teenage girls and around 55% of television advertisements directed at the female audience use beauty as their product appeal. Many use thin, pretty and sexy models, many of whom in fact suffer from eating disorders themselves or whose images have been manipulated to produce the “perfect” face and figure. This continual bombardment inevitably influences susceptible females into becoming self-conscious about their appearance and to obsess over their physiques.

Media denial has long been a problem in the struggle to change attitudes. As an example, in 2000 a spokesperson for Premier, the agency then representing supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, suggested that women who bought fashion magazines should shoulder equal blame as they were the ones buying the magazines, and statistics consistently proved that more copies were sold if the magazine featured a skinny, beautiful girl on the cover. Indeed, many advertisers still persist in promoting the image of unhealthily thin women as the ideal standard for beauty. This is a dangerous message that must be corrected.

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Written by Alexander Thornton: A specialist in the area of addiction and other behavioural disorders, writing for Life Works Community. His areas of expertise include sex and drug addictions, and compulsive behaviours. Connect with him on Google+ and Twitter.

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