Do magazine editors encourage eating disorders among young women? Perhaps. The majority of women portrayed in magazines as having the "perfect" body type are also extraordinarily thin, making it easy for society to blame the media for our nation's eating disorders.
Recognizing this dichotomy, researchers are faced with a challenging question: Are magazines to blame for promoting the thin ideal or are their readers—consumers who are responsible for the financial success of magazines?
"The more we know, the less we know," says Steven Thomsen, Ph.D., an associate communications professor at Brigham Young University. "That's the most frustrating part." Thomsen conducted a study examining the frequency with which eating disordered female high school students read health and fitness magazines—a form of media that should abet healthy lifestyles. His findings, published in the American Journal of Health Education, are both enlightening and disturbing.
Among the nearly 500 students he surveyed, Thomsen found abundant evidence of unhealthy weight control practices in the previous year. Eleven percent of the participants reported that they had used laxatives, 15 percent had taken diet pills, 9 percent induced vomiting, and 52 percent said they had restricted their caloric intake to under 1,200 calories per day.
Thomsen then asked the participants how often they read health and fitness, beauty and fashion magazines. He discovered that women who read health and fitness magazines frequently—at least once a month—were also significantly more likely to have practiced unhealthy weight control methods than were moderate or infrequent readers. Nearly 80 percent of frequent readers had induced vomiting, 73 percent had taken diet pills, and 60 percent had used laxatives. And nearly two times as many women who limited their daily caloric intake also read health and fitness magazines more frequently compared with those who did not.
Surprisingly, Thomsen also uncovered similar results when examining how frequently eating disorder sufferers read beauty and fashion magazines—neither of which focus on living healthfully. The only difference he did find was among laxative users, who did not frequently read beauty and fashion magazines.
Despite his findings—and his having teenage daughters of his own—Thomsen doesn't blame the media for the prevalence of eating disorders in America. And neither did the study's participants.
"This supports our perception that these magazines may be more of a perpetuating factor than a causal factor," Thomsen says. "It seems that young women who already have eating disordered attitudes and thoughts are turning to the publications for support."