Does the media cause eating disorders? This question comes up over and over. As a professor of journalism, I suspect I get it more than most, and my answer is always the same: No. Eating disorders are highly biologically mediated; the biggest risk factor for developing one is a family history of such disorders. Genetics plays a huge role. A family history of anxiety disorders also predisposes people to developing Eds.
If media caused eating disorders, I think half the country would have a diagnosable eating disorder.
But the relentless barrage of images we all "consume," of the unattainable thin ideal, do affect us. That's us, you and me, who don't have eating disorders and who will never develop a full-blown ED. (They affect those with eating disorders, too; they just don't cause such illnesses.) If you don't believe it, read this study, which found that girls as young as three years old are internalizing that thin ideal, and judging themselves against it. No surprises there, really; kids get it, and by "it" I mean the unspoken cultural messaging. Their survival depends on getting "it," learning to navigate society's expectations of them. We know that when we say one thing and do another, kids pick up on what we do. Rightly so. And in this case, what we're doing has serious consequences for us and our children.
What we're doing is agreeing, on some level, that, as Wallis Simpson so famously said, "You can never be too thin." When we let those waiflike images in without questioning them, without pointing out that 98 percent of women can never physically look like fashion models, we're saying without words that they are reasonable. When we "fat talk"-put ourselves and others down for not conforming to this unattainable thin ideal, when we jokingly refer to our love handles or muffin tops or any other part of our body we don't like-we're teaching our children that those standards do apply, to them as well as to us.
The full range of diagnosable eating disorders affect under 10 percent of people-which is still way too many people suffering with serious illnesses. But it seems clear to me that many, many more of us suffer from some level of disordered eating and thinking about our bodies. And that's where media plays a powerful role.
What will you do to change things for yourself and your children?
Here are links to some projects that might be a good starting point. I'd love to hear your ideas.
Harriet Brown is the author of Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia, and an assistant professor of magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications.