“I weighed myself between two and four times a day and didn’t even go on overnights for work without bringing my scale with me. I lied about my food, did extra cardio, and went back to my typical workout of two to four hours walking on the treadmill, plus an hour of hot yoga every day. For the last two months before I entered treatment in July, I was eating a protein shake between 11 and 1, an apple at 3, and yogurt and cheerios and a Quest Bar at 7:30 pretty much every day. It made grocery shopping easy, but it made my body seriously start to shut down. At that time, my heart was barely beating, and I was having trouble breathing. That’s when I finally got scared (Sugar, 2017).” This is a personal story from Jessica Stahl. She struggled with anorexia for five years before entering into a treatment facility. There are approximately 30 million people in the United States who suffer from an eating disorder. Despite what some might think, eating disorders are a mental illness and not just a choice. Out of every mental illness, people with eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. Eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect any race, ethnicity, and gender (ANAD). There has been speculation as to what causes an eating disorder, and some might believe that the media and their portrayal of gender stereotypes causes them. While there is no denying that the media has had an impact on the development of eating disorders, this is not the only factor that is to blame.
Eating disorders are a problem that many people face. There are many types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Any disorder not falling under these categories is termed an eating disorder and not otherwise specified. There are many signs of an eating disorder, including dietary restriction, loss of the menstrual period, prolonged fasting, and significant weight loss (DSM-IV). Adolescence is often the time when someone will develop an eating disorder. This is due to the physical and psychological development that takes place at this time in peoples lives. Girls will develop and often gain weight, which can lead to unhealthy ways of avoiding the weight gain (Polivy & Herman).
While they are more common among women, eating disorders can be developed by any gender, and sometimes the type of unhealthy behavior differs between genders. Females often try to become as skinny as possible, and males often try to become muscular and skinny. Often times, this is due to the different portrayal of men and women by the media. Men are portrayed as masculine and muscular, often to an excessive extent. Women are portrayed as unrealistically thin. In a survey of adolescents, 57% of girls reported unhealthy tactics for weight loss, and 21% of boys report the same thing (Clinical Key, 2013). Seeing as over half of the girls surveyed in this group are performing unhealthy actions, this is a very serious problem. It is important to try to figure out what causes eating disorders so that people are eating and developing healthily.
There have been many studies conducted to see what can cause these problems. Some people believe that the media and the unrealistic portrayal of women has had an effect. Another perspective is that the media does not necessarily cause eating disorders, seeing as it is a mental illness. Scientists who support this perspective usually think that there are biological and environmental factors. Many people think that the media is to blame for eating disorders, and while it may be a partial cause, it is definitely not the only factor causing eating disorders.
Women are portrayed in the media as very thin, and this can have an effect on body dissatisfaction. One study had adolescent girls look at images from the media and the scores of body satisfaction went down slightly. Other studies have found that adolescents who try to model the look of people in the media have a much higher chance of developing an eating disorder, and especially purging behaviors (Morris & Katzman). Many people with eating disorders use pictures of skinny models as “inspiration” to keep going with their disorder. This would certainly point to the media being an issue.
However, something that is acknowledged as a cause of eating disorders is the underlying psychological issue with body dissatisfaction. “It is not exposure to perfect body ideals per se that seems detrimental to body image, but rather the lenses through which individuals view their world in relation to appearance (Bell & Dittmar, 2011).” The blame cannot be place solely on the media, because there are many other factors involved. In a study conducted by Beth Teresa Bell and Helga Dittmar, it was found that adolescent girls who identify with models tend to experience more body dissatisfaction after seeing pictures, videos, or advertisements with thin women. The study failed to find a relationship between exposure to these images and body dissatisfaction, unless the girls identified with models.
This being said, the media certainly does not help with body positivity. There are several ways that the media could help people feel comfortable in their body and with their weight. Photoshopping women to be skinnier leads to an unrealistic expectation of body shape. Decreasing photoshopping and editing would help with this. Representing different body shapes, sizes, and colors could also help. Other ways include addressing the problem of eating disorders and promoting body positivity.
Another possible explanation for the cause of an eating disorder is family dynamic. Often times adolescents growing up in a critical, hostile, and overly-involved home tend to develop eating disorders. This could be the result of feeling the pressure to be perfect. Overly critical parents, especially those who make comments on weight, can tend to have an effect in the development. Meg Masseron stated in a Buzzfeed article that her grandmother would tell her she had arms like ham, was getting chubby, needed to go on a diet, and was constantly comparing her weight to her friends’. This started when she was only four years old, and eventually led to the development of an eating disorder during adolescence (Rothstein, 2015). Being around a parent who is self-conscious about their weight or has a negative body image can sometimes transfer to the child and possibly lead to the development of an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are caused by body dissatisfaction and a desire to be thin. There have been many studies to find the actual cause. One perspective is that the media’s unrealistic portrayal of women is a major cause. Another perspective is that there are psychological factors that lead to the development of an eating disorder. I agree with environmental factor perspective, because the media cannot be the sole blame. Eating disorders are severe mental illnesses, and just seeing a picture of a thin model cannot be the sole cause. There is much more going on mentally, because it is obviously not a choice, just like any other mental illness.
- Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV. American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
- Lopez, Vera, et al. “Effects of gender, media influences, and traditional gender role orientation on disordered eating and appearance concerns.” ClinicalKey, 1 Aug. 2013, www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/playContent/1-s2.0-S0140197113000717?returnurl=null&referrer=null&scrollTo=#hl0000571.
- Beth Teresa Bell and Helga Dittmar. “Does Media Type Matter? The Role of Identification in Adolescent Girls’ Media Consumption and the Impact of Different Thin-Ideal Media on Body Image.” SpringerLink, Springer US, 15 Apr. 2011, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-011-9964-x.
- Sugar, Jenny. “Jessica Shares the Honest and Scary Details About Her Recovery From Anorexia.” POPSUGAR Fitness, 21 Nov. 2017, www.popsugar.com/fitness/Anorexia-Recovery-Story-43158341.
- “Eating Disorder Statistics • National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, www.anad.org/education-and-awareness/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/.
- Polivy, Janet, and Herman Peter. “Causes of Eating Disorders.” Causes of Eating Disorders, University of Toronto, February 2002, www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135103.
- Rothstein, Caroline. “17 Stories Of Eating-Disorder Survival.” BuzzFeed, 24 Feb. 2015, www.buzzfeed.com/carolinerothstein/17-stories-of-eating-disorder-survival?utm_term=.bfqnp0P67Z#.tx2Y0n9Bmq.
- Morris, Anne M, and Debra K Katzman. “The Impact of the Media on Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents.” Pediatrics & Child Health, Pulsus Group Inc, May 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792687/.