By Nicola Byrom
This evening I had the pleasure of hosting a debate in Brasenose College, Oxford, on whether mass media are a cause of eating disorders. Having followed the APPG’s compilation of a report on Body Image with interest, I was quite happy to argue that media should be ashamed of its approach to body image. This evening’s debate got me thinking about whether the issues we have as a society with body image run far deeper than the way the media portrays beauty.
Let me start with why we should think about media portrayal of body image. It is estimated that in the UK around a quarter of the population is on a diet at any one time and 1.6 million people are living with an eating disorder. 69% of adolescent girls acknowledge that images in magazines influence their conception of the ideal body and just under half, report wanting to lose weight after seeing such images. Compared to girls who do not usually read fashion and glamour magazines, girls who frequently read articles about diets and issues related to weight loss are six times more likely to engage in the most extreme unhealthy weight control behaviours (Utter et al, 2003). While this looks compelling evidence for the damage done by the glossy magazines, read by some 33 million teenagers every year, we have to ask about causation. For us to claim that the mass media plays a role in causing eating disorders, we need to see that there are no factors that differed between the girls who read these articles and those who do not. In fact, the girls and women who already tend to compare themselves with ideal figures are more likely to seek out such media for guidance, inspiration and self-evaluation Lopez-Guimera et al, 2010).
You might then argue that if this media is consumed by the people who are most likely to suffer the negative effects of the content, we should simply prohibit the media’s focus on body image. If you want to consider this, then you have to consider a chicken and egg situation. Why does popular media focus relentlessly on body image? One magazine editor notes that editions of his magazine with the signer Adele and comedian Stephen Fry on their front covers had lower sales than editions fronted by celebrities revealing toned half-naked torsos. The students joining us for the debate this evening concurred – as a society we have a fascination with the ideal body image, and perhaps this drives the media presentation of body image. Some however, might argue that it is the media presentation of body image that allows ideas of an idealised body become so broadly accepted across society.
Looking at the causes of today’s obesity epidemic would be a blog in its own right, but many argue that the response to this epidemic, the constant promotion of a healthy lifestyle, has a damaging impact on young people at risk of developing eating disorders. I’m getting married in the autumn and Facebook’s response to my engagement is to bombard me with adverts for wedding dresses, venues and strategies to lose a stone in two months. This kind of diet promotion is so common place in our society that I hardly bat an eyelid – no one does. Yet this promotion of diets is really a whole lot more sinister than it looks. Professor Susie Orbach told the APPG parliamentary inquiry into body image that more than 95% of dieters regain the weight lost and may gain additional weight within five years of initiating a diet regime. This suggests that diet promotion sells us something unachievable. The sense of persistent defeat, of being unable to change our world, or more directly your body, bought about the mismatch between the ideal pitched by diet promotion and the reality of dieting, sound very much like the kind of psychological traits that underlie eating disorders.
Perhaps though the real problem with why it is so hard to pin blame on the mass media for eating disorders is the simple fact that eating disorders are complex illnesses with no single cause. Psychological, interpersonal, socio-cultural and biological factors all play a role. Some of the students joining us for this evening’s debated argued that it was condescending to suggest that eating disorders could be caused by the media’s portrayal of body image as such an argument overlooked the depth of psychological issues involved.
This amazing blog was written by Nicola Byrom, the founder and director of Student Run Self Help (SRSH)