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The Media & Eating Disorders

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Introduction How much influence do the media have on people’s self-image and behavior? That question is debated every time a “copy cat” criminal strikes and claims he saw the act committed in a movie. It has also arisen in connection with eating disorders and low self-esteem and how they relate to the appearance of the human body as portrayed in the media. This paper argues that there is now sufficient evidence to support a link, though not necessarily a direct causal link, between the media portrayal of the “ideal” body and people’s (especially women) reaction to their own bodies. Specifically, it argues that the unrealistically thin women and well-muscled men shown on television and in film show a body image that most people cannot attain, no matter how much they diet and exercise. Despite this, society insists that these distorted images are the “ideal,” leading some people to develop eating disorders or other psychological problems such as low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction when they fail to attain these impossible standards.
Discussion
As noted, the argument over whether there is a direct link between media images and body dissatisfaction is still a matter of debate; what is no longer debated is that “negative exposure effects” do in fact occur (Dittmar, 2009, p. 1). That is, it no longer in doubt that some individuals are affected negatively by what they see in the media. What studies are attempting to do now is to determine what “diverse factors” make these people susceptible to the impact of the media images, while others are not affected. Dittmar argues that research now aims to support “a qualified and complex picture of media effects or influences, highlighting the importance not only of individual differences, but also psychological processes, related to self and identity” (2009, p. 1). This is far more detailed and multi-layered than simply saying that women are dissatisfied with their bodies because they aren’t as thin as Hollywood’s anorexic stars. It’s worth noting that the supposed “thin-ideal woman” found in the media is “typically 15% below the average weight of women, representing an unrealistic standard of thinness … The thin-ideal woman portrayed in the media is biogenetically difficult, if not impossible, for the majority of women (Hawkins et al., 2004, p. 36). In addition, this media creation has gotten thinner over the years, making it even more difficult for women to attain this standard (Hawkins et al, 2004). “Theorists have argued that this image, combined with our culture’s intense focus on dieting, has contributed to the current epidemic of eating disorders” (Hawkins et al, 2004, p. 36). Levine and Murnen argue that although they cannot state with certainty that there is a causal connection between the media and body image problems, they have found enough information to suggest that it is “probably best considered a variable risk factor that might well be later shown to be a causal risk factor’ (2009, p. 32). To arrive at this conclusion they examined seven criteria and drew conclusions about each. Criteria 1 and 2: Content and Exposure: There is no doubt that the media today fill both these criteria, as they are “saturated with potentially unhealthy messages, and citizens of virtually all ages are motivated to use and be engaged with these media on a regular basis” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 16). The third criterion is Cross-Sectional Correlates of Exposure to Mass Media; the authors say that meta-analytic studies reveal “there is a small to moderate positive correlation between level of exposure to mass media such as TV and magazines and each of the important triad of body dissatisfaction, thin-ideal internationalization, and disordered eating. This fulfills Criterion 3” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 18). What they are getting at is that the more media to which women are exposed, no matter what form it takes, the more likely they are to express some dissatisfaction with their body image.
Criterion 4: Longitudinal Correlates of Exposure to Mass Media: This criterion was not proven. The authors analyzed a “very small number of longitudinal studies” and found that although media exposure in children and “very young adolescents” may predict a degree of “negative body image and disordered eating,” the real factor in predicting problems later in life is the “intensity and extent of core beliefs and assumptions about the importance, meaning and effect of appearance in an individual’s life” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 21). The authors note that “there is little support for Criterion 4 as it applies to adolescence, and preliminary but inconclusive support for this criterion in regard to children and college students” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 21). Criterion 5: Experimental Manipulation of Media Exposure Experimental Evidence: Laboratory Research and the Contrast Effect: There is no way for laboratory experiments to settle the “question of correlation and causal agency in a developmental sense” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 21). But it may be possible for experiments to determine whether “concentrated media exposure” makes women and girls feel better or worse about themselves (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 21). In this case, an Australian study “produced compelling evidence for the contention that mass media have negative and cumulative effects on body image in girls and young women” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 22). When the women and girls in the studies compare themselves to the models and actresses and TV and in magazines, their negative reaction persists: “The adolescent girls whose body image was most negatively affected by experimental exposure to 20 television commercials featuring the thin ideal tended to have greater levels of body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness 2 years later”; the most vulnerable women and girls would appear to be those who have a “self-schema dominated by the core importance of physical appearance” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 22). That is, those females for whom physical appearances is the core of their identity have higher levels of body dissatisfaction when they compare themselves to the unrealistically thin models and actresses than those females whose identity is not so narrowly focused on their physicality. Perhaps one of the most pernicious results of the concern with thinness and whether or not it is harmful is the proliferation of websites that have come out in favor of eating disorders. They are pro-bulimia and pro-anorexia and encourage girls and women to continue their life-threatening habits: “Some of the most prominent pro-ana sites defiantly and zealously promote AN as a sacred lifestyle rather than a debilitating psychiatric disorder” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 22). It would seem likely that exposure to sites like these would exacerbate feelings of dissatisfaction in women, if the models they see on TV and in magazines do so, but it’s not possible to determine this, since the “adolescent girls and young women who avidly seek them out … already have a full-blown eating disorder” (Levin and Murnen, 2009, p. 22).
Criterion 6: Experimental Evidence: Prevention Studies Media Literacy: Laboratory Investigations: If exposure to these images causes body dissatisfaction, then increasing “media literacy” might have the opposite effect (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 24). Media literacy is defined as a set of “knowledge, attitudes, and skills that enable people to work together to understand, appreciate and critically analyze the nature of mass media and one’s relationship with them” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 24). This might take into account things like the fact that images are airbrushed, celebrities and others have huge staffs of people to help them maintain their appearance, and that ordinary people cannot reach these levels simply because most people don’t have the time to spend on themselves that actors and other media people do.
At present, though, there have been no long-term studies done of this particular criterion, though there is “some encouraging evidence” to suggest that learning to think critically about images might mitigate their damaging effects (Levine and Murnen, 2009). However, there is not enough evidence to prove this point.
Criterion 7: Subjective Influence: Motives, Pressures, and Ideals: Desiring the Media’s Ideal Shape: A 1999 study of “nearly 500 working class girls ages 11 through 19 revealed that almost 70% reported that the ‘pictures’ in magazines have an influence on their conception of the ‘perfect body shape’” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 27). Nearly half said the photos motivated them to lose weight, and the more “women’s magazines” they read, the more likely the girls in this age groups were to think about the perfect body, to be dissatisfied with their own body, to want to lose weight, and to diet” (Levine and Murnen, 2009, p. 27). Levine and Murnen argue that they have sound evidence to support criteria 1, 2, 5 and 7 and some evidence in support of 3, 4 and 6. Given that, they say that there is a strong suggestion of a causal link between media exposure and eating disorders. However, because there are so many variables still unaccounted for, the authors (as noted above), suggest that “engagement with mass media is probably best considered a variable risk factor that might well be later shown to be a causal risk factor” (Levine & Murnen, 2009, p. 10). Not surprisingly, the women who are most dissatisfied with their bodies are those who have the greatest discrepancy between their own image and that shown in photos, film and on television (Bergstrom, Neighbors & Malheim, 2009). One interesting finding from the research is that women who dislike their body image may compensate for their feelings of discomfort and dislike by emphasizing their other qualities, such as their high academic performance or being a good friend (Bergstrom, Neighbors & Malheim, 2009). This type of thinking was found more often in women with a high BMI as compared to the media image than in women with a lower BMI; again, not surprisingly, thinner women were less upset by the images than those with higher BMIs (Bergstrom, Neighbors & Malheim, 2009). But these authors also state flatly: “The current findings suggest that only women with higher BMIs are adversely affected by viewing media images depicting the thin ideal—a finding which differs from many previous studies finding main effects of media exposure on body image disturbance” (Bergstrom, Neighbors & Malheim, 2009, p. 276).
Bergstrom et al suggest that the reason for the discrepancy between their results and other studies may be that their subjects were not exposed to the media for more than a few seconds, so that only the women whose body-image greatly differed from the media would be likely to find it distressing (2009). Another indication of the sometimes perverse effects of the media is found in Cattarin et al., who describe a study revealing that females who were exposed to “media images (commercials) reflecting the current societally sanctioned standards of thinness and attractiveness experienced greater mood and body image disturbance” than females who watched a “neutral nonappearance-related control video” (Cattarin et al., 2000, p. 220). In addition, those who saw the appearance-related material were found to experience a greater “self-to-model comparison” than those who saw the control video (Cattarin et al., 2000). The authors use the phrase “appearance-related distress” to describe the reaction of some of the subjects to the test, indicating that the problem is a serious one.
Conclusion
Although there is still no absolutely direct causal link between media images and body dissatisfaction, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that it is one factor, and a major one, bearing on women’s self-perception. Whether or not such a direct link is ever found is less important than there is evidence to show that right now, millions of women are unhappy because they don’t look like movie stars. That is a serious health issue as well as a societal one; girls are literally starving themselves to death in a quest to attain the unattainable. Until we as a society stop putting such emphasis on appearance, this tragedy will continue.

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