However, we are warned to guard against the short term view of media influence on body image or eating behaviours, rather than assess the long term outcome of exposure to certain images and values, or even to assess the effect of exposure to any set of values independently of the “shifting sands” of social and technological change.
Studies of prevalence show that bulimia nervosa is on the increase, although again these figures may just reflect a growing awareness of the disorder or an increased provision of services. People are more likely to apply for help Still, the link between the media and bulimia is tenuous. Women feel pressure from many sides to control their weight, from the media but also from their peers, from boyfriends, from parents and from the fashion shops that carry clothes in ranges and sizes that suit only the smallest among them.
Esteem isn’t the only risk factor for an eating disorder. Traumatic childhood experiences, timing of puberty, family functioning, emotional resilience, exposure to unhealthy eating patterns in other people, family concerns about weight, fear of growing up, sexuality problems, bullying, loss, history of dieting, all may have an influence on a persons relationship with food. So we can conclude that the media may both steer and reflect our cultural obsession with how we look and what we put into our mouths.
Self-esteem is a dynamic construct, like body image, which is influenced by a whole variety of factors such as parenting, childhood experiences, core personality and body image especially in girls. It follows thus by logical reduction that influences on body image will affect self esteem and promote the risk of developing an eating disorder as a person turns to the control of their body in order to feel acceptable. In this respect the media may contribute to low self-esteem by promoting slenderness as the pathway to gaining love, acceptance and respect while at the same time reflecting a trend in society to demonise fat.
Some institutions in Government, Psychology and the media industry itself are becoming concerned about the use of thin models to promote goods and service. There was a Government “thin summit” in 2000 to which moguls of the magazine industry were invited. In a similar vein, the Independent Television Commission has issued guidelines stating that it is desirable to ensure that advertising does not stimulate unhealthy attitudes to eating and that is must not imply that being underweight is desirable.
The media are held responsible for the supposed growth of eating disorders in the country. To what extent is this true? In this short article I would like to separate myth from fact, and to provide the reader with some articles that might help them decide which is cause and which is effect.
By Deanne Jade, National Centre For Eating Disorders. Acknowledgement: The British Medical Association, Eating Disorders Body Image and The Media
So there have been many debates about the influence of the media and social behaviour, for example sexual morality or violence. We recognise, as a result of these debates, that the interaction between message and response is complex and audience dependent. To quote the BMA report on eating disorders, body image and the media:
Now the battle centres on a new morality of food and eating. We accuse the media, by glorifying the culture of thinness, of causing an epidemic of eating distress, especially among young women. The media denies culpability, or at least responsibility for doing anything about it. Kelly Brownell, a US expert in eating disorders, argues that the media contribute to a toxic environment in which eating disorders may be more likely to occur. This is because of the “Damaging Paradox” of modern society in which the media promotes, in a compelling manner, a low weight sculptured ideal body.
Would this work?By establishing unattainable standards of beauty and bodily perfection, the media drive ordinary people to dissatisfaction with their body images. This dissatisfaction can result in resorts to drastic measures, and even disorders of behavior, as people try to achieve these unreachable goals.
Dieting behaviours are however a risk factor for the other eating disorders, compulsive eating and its variant, bulimia nervosa, an illness in which the sufferer, usually a young woman but many men suffer too – diets, experiences rebound binge eating due to food deprivation and then purges to rid herself of unwanted calories. Compulsive eating is a direct outcome of rebellion against food restraint, a behaviour that can rapidly turn into a remorseless habit. On the other hand, bulimia is an illness which may start out as a useful strategy to control weight gain but rapidly develops into an addictive illness, which engulfs the sufferer and becomes a way of coping with emotional difficulties.
Studies are being done to look at genes, hormones, and chemicals in the brain that may have an effect on the development of, and recovery from eating disorders.
These findings must be interpreted against the fact that women tend to overestimate their body size, a feature that extents back to early days of puberty. Waller and Hamilton have an interesting view of the effects of the media in this respect. They claim that the media may act as a “negative reinforcer of body size overestimation, which may lead to eating disorder”. In other words, the media doesn’t make women feel a need to be thinner per se, but the media may assist them in feeling bigger than they already feel themselves to be. The starting position for many females is thus a built-in vulnerability, which is reinforced by the culture of the media. This view must be considered alongside other, parallel studies on body image. These show that the development of body image over time, a more useful predictor of protection from eating distress, is dynamic and affected by many variables, including exposure to traumatic events, body issues in childhood and general self esteem derived from core personality traits.