Media, Body Image, and Eating Disorders

An intricate relationship between eating disorders and culture

woman inundated with ads about body imageMost of us lead media-saturated lives. We can try to control our exposure, but in today’s world of technology and communications, we cannot help most of it. Some of us have sold our televisions and turned off cable access in trade for media streaming. We’ve cut costs, sure, but we’ve not reduced our exposure to the influence of media. Most of us use a smartphone – about 77% of Americans do – and marketing experts estimate that, depending upon how we access information and use social media, we may be exposed to up to 4,000 advertisements every day. Every day. Is there any other regular influence in our lives? Any exposure so involuntary? Regardless of how much conscious thought we think we give those images and messages, and regardless of how we hard we try to avoid them, what we see in the media affects how we view what is normal, desirable, and worthy. This is especially true with body image. Airbrushed models have graced the pages of our magazines for generations, but with technological advances, even moving images are digitally enhanced.

Much of the American media still portrays an ideal female beauty as 6 feet tall and 101 pounds. In the real world, most women average about 5 feet 4 inches and they weigh about 168 pounds. Women we see on our screens have thick, shiny hair. They confidently wear clothing that exposes just enough, or more than enough, skin to entice. They exude power, prowess, and provocation. As you sit in your office or classroom, how many of your peers look like this? Still, we quietly digest and translate these unhealthy, unrealistic messages into our own expectations, and they are damaging. Most of us exist in a constant state of dissatisfaction with our own bodies. This dissatisfaction leaves us primed for a myriad of eating disorders.

Eating disorders on the rise

The number of reported eating disorder cases across the nation climbs every year. Recent studies estimate that at least 30 million Americans of all ages, genders, races, and ethnic groups suffer from an eating disorder. That’s nearly ten percent of the population.

Society and the “perfect body”

Of course, many factors contribute to the onset and struggle with eating disorders in addition to media and marketing. Social norms, peer pressure, genetic predisposition, co-occurring psychological and emotional issues, trauma, family belief systems, and more also play significant roles. But in all of western society’s subcultures, the intense focus on body image is evident in every people group. Physical perfection seems universally understood to be a primary key to success and happiness, offering little room for individuality or other expression. Body image plays into prejudice, and prejudice plays into social norms – a vicious cycle.

Reducing eating disorders will require a cultural shift

How do we turn around media bias, our social beliefs, norms, and trends, and even our own expectations? Ideally, the media would identify and assume the responsibility and opportunity to nurture its audience to balanced health – to educate and develop healthier, realistic images of what health looks like – and in recent months and years, we’ve seen some of that changing. Many independent media creatives on social platforms are proclaiming a new view of wellness through education, opinions, and testimonials. These powerful tools reach many people.

Within ourselves, we have work to do. With the influx of media and social influence, we must challenge what we digest. We can change our beliefs and expectations of what a healthy body looks like and feels like. Striving for balanced health is part of our human quest. If more share healthy ideals and expectations, we can change our culture and change the world.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, we can help. Please call us – we are here for you.

Haven Hills Recovery – Trauma Informed Care for Women