How the Media Affects Body Image and Eating Disorders

The media puts a large amount of pressure on females to meet a certain social and cultural standard of beauty, which can inevitably lead to poor body image and eating disorders. The more an individual is exposed to this unrealistic standard, the more they find it is reflective of how they should look. Looking youthful and thin has become an essential part of what it means to be beautiful by today’s standards. These standards are often unachievable, especially as women age and mature. This can lead to women feeling negative about their bodies and potentially experience more severe issues such as anxiety, depression, obsession with losing weight and a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder (2).

Social Comparison Theory and Media

Social Comparison processing is the process by which individuals compare themselves either upwards or downwards to others. An upward comparison occurs when an individual compares himself or herself to someone who fares better by societal standards than they do in a particular facet. A downward comparison is naturally the opposite, where an individual compares himself or herself to someone who is not as well off in a certain dimension.

The extent to which women engage in this type of processing could indicate the level in which they are impacted by exposure to unrealistic media images. The pervasiveness of the media makes it very challenging for almost all women to avoid evaluating themselves against the sociocultural standard of beauty in some way or another (8).

Media and Poor Body Image in Adolescents

One of the first eating disorder symptoms is to manifest a poor body image. From a young age, we are bombarded with media images and messages suggesting that we must be thin if we are to be happy and successful in life.

According to data from 25 studies involving females, it was proven that body image was significantly more negative after viewing media images of a slender body than after viewing images of average and plus sized models. This negative effect was stronger in females younger than 19 years old (3).

In an attempt to emulate media images, girls will often take drastic measures. These images tend to cause low self-esteem in young girls; consequently, they will proactively attempt to change their bodies into what they perceive to be desirable jeopardizing their natural, healthy state. This skewed reality of what a healthy body size and shape is for their specific body type can result in the development of harmful weight loss behaviors.

Media and Eating Disorders

As models and actresses have gotten thinner over time, eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction have become more common. A study on the relationship between media and eating disorders among undergraduate college students found that media exposure predicted:

  • Disordered eating symptoms
  • Body dissatisfaction
  • Drive to be thinner
  • Endorsement of personal thinness

Another study suggests a relationship between the desire to look like celebrities and be model thin with the predictive of young girls, 9 to 14 years old, to initiate purging at least monthly (7). It is clear that the media can trigger body image disturbances for girls and women that will potentially lead to an eating disorder.

Focus on the Body Image Positives in Media

Media can and should be used as a conduit for promoting good health and supporting prevention strategies. In recent years, some advertisers have campaigned for a more idealistic standard of beauty regarding young girls and women.

One such advocate is Dove®. Their Real Beauty campaign celebrates the natural physical variation of women and encourages them to be confident and comfortable with themselves (5). Another is the Health Initiative founded by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) with the support of Vogue Worldwide. The Health Initiative’s goal is to help those vulnerable to eating disorders by depicting healthy body images in their magazines (6).

These cases of positive body image efforts in the media are promising. However, more effort is needed to persuade the television, movie, and magazine industries to employ more models and actresses whose weight could be described as healthy, not underweight.

We Can Help

The Meadows Ranch wants you to remember that advertisements in beauty and fashion magazines and on television directed at girls and women are simply marketing schemes to sell their products. These types of ads are made to lure you in by giving you a false sense of self and satisfaction based on your appearance. If you do become so influenced by the media’s barrage of distorted body image messages that you develop unhealthy eating issues, we want you to know that there is help.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, we can help. For additional information about the treatment of eating disorders, please call our admissions specialists today.

1. Coker Ross, Carolyn. “Why Do Women Hate Their Bodies?” Psych Central, n.d. Web.
2. “Self Esteem, Body Image and Size Positive Values from Healthy Weight Network.” Self Esteem, Body Image and Size Positive Values from Healthy Weight Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
3. “Result Filters.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
4. “Self Esteem, Body Image and Size Positive Values from Healthy Weight Network.” Self Esteem, Body Image and Size Positive Values from Healthy Weight Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
5. “Top 10 Positive Media Influences.” Top 10 Positive Media Influences. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
6. “Taking a Stand: International Vogue Editors Join Forces to Support the CFDA’s Health Initiative.” Vogue. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
7. “The Impact of the Media on Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents.” N.p., n.d. Web.
8. “By Kasey L. Serdar.” Westminster College: A Private Comprehensive Liberal Arts College in Salt Lake City, UT, Offering Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees in Liberal Arts and Professional Programs, including Business, Nursing, Education and Communication. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.

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