Does the media play a role in eating disorders?

I got invited to join a Facebook group of this name late last night, and I spent part of the day contemplating my response. I hesitated in writing for several reasons, not the least of which were that I don't have time right now to be responding to a lot of potentially irritated people, and also because I wanted to frame my thoughts properly. After a while, I figured what the hell- I'll bite. I decided to blog my thoughts here and post a link to the group so I didn't have to check two places for comments.

I searched through my blog archives and was astonished to discover that I had never answered this question head-on, in its own post. So, here it is.

To me, the question of "Does media play a role in eating disorders?" is usually asked in a sense of "Does media play a role in causing eating disorders?" And that answer, I would have to say, is pretty minimal. Media provides lots of context, and more than enough triggers, but to say that people with eating disorders are "dying to be thin" minimizes the seriousness of the illness and does everyone a disservice.

I was flipping through a copy of The Handbook of Treatment for Eating Disorders and I stumbled across an article that looked at the Three Ps of eating disorder onset: Predisposing factors (ie, genetics and other neurobiological factors), Precipitating factors (ie, culture, dieting, "healthy eating," etc), and Perpetuating factors (ie, what keeps the illness going). The role of the media certainly fits in the category of "precipitating factors," but although these factors are important, they seem more incidental than causative. Predisposing factors are largely homogeneous; precipitating factors can vary widely.

Finding yourself afraid to eat is a rather bizarre phenomenon. Our brains need to explain it somehow--so we turn to the vocabulary we know. I did blog about this almost two years ago now, rather briefly, and I think I shall plagiarize myself a bit:

Could eating disorders be women and men trying to be perfect? To live up to society's expectations? To look like models? I doubt it. That's part of it. It's the cultural context of the illness. In the Middle Ages, women (most of the recorded cases were in females) who starved themselves were considered saints. They fasted to get closer to God. Some, like Catherine of Siena, got hooked. It felt good. Her explanation was of faith. Ask a sufferer today, and a lot of it seems to be 'healthy eating' and images of supermodels and the idea that you can Have It All. It's no more a reason than faith. But it is a context. It does explain the triggers, the psychological environment from which an eating disorder develops.

One of my OCD fears was that I was going to catch AIDS from someone, or that I already had AIDS and was going to give it to someone else. Regardless, it was OCD. But if I was about 15 years older (the OCD AIDS stuff started in about 1993-1994, when I was 13-14), AIDS wouldn't have been on the radar. It might have been another disease. It might have been something else entirely. A person with schizophrenia would not have feared the CIA listening in on phone calls 100 years ago. First off, they probably wouldn't have had a phone, nor would there have been wire taps, and lastly- there was no CIA. Diseases have a context. But that doesn't mean that AIDS fear mongering caused my OCD, nor that the CIA causes schizophrenia.


Or, for that matter, that the media caused my eating disorder.

Much of the debate about media and eating disorders boils down to this: do eating disorders exist along a continuum with more normalized eating (that is, are eating disorders an extreme version of a diet and common body image issues?), or are eating disorders a separate entity. The answers aren't all in, and I won't pretend to understand all the answers that we do have (but I'll pretend enough to do a more in-depth blog tomorrow- stay tuned!), but I believe that eating disorders are a distinct entity separate but similar to our obsession with dieting and thinness.

Let's compare eating disorders to depression. Saying eating disorders are just a really whacked out diet is like saying depression is just a really bad mood. Most people with depression are in a really bad mood--that's kind of the definition of depression, really. And many people with eating disorders appear to be dieting and have body image distortion. But depression isn't a really bad mood that won't go away. When the weather sucks or the store is out of eggs or the car won't start, people will often say, "Ugh- I'm so depressed!" Not really. You're pissed off, sad, annoyed, whatever, but that's not depression. Both eating disorders and depression frequently pass through stages of seeming like just another diet or a really bad mood that lasts for-freaking-ever, but they then take on a life of their own. They stop becoming a choice and become an illness.

I thought for a long time that the thinness ideal had a lot to do with eating disorders, and I've since changed my mind, especially in light of the emerging research that suggests that up to 82% of eating disorder risk is genetic.* Eating disorders existed long before supermodels and they'll probably exist long after. And I think we are missing so many opportunities for prevention and education by focusing on the media aspect and leaving so many other areas out in the cold.

*A, this wasn't the study that I was referring to in a previous post (the study is too new), but it does confirm the numbers in the talk that I scribbled down.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Carrie,

Thank you for both your thoughts (so well written!) and the link to this great research article.

anne

chartreuse said...

I agree pretty much with your post. I wonder, though, if in those predisposed genetically to AN if getting down to some low weight (for that person) can 'trigger' the illness to begin. That could be lots of things -- the flu, poverty, etc. I wonder if one thing that our current obsession with dieting does is increase the number of individuals who try out a diet, happen to be predisposed to AN, hit their trigger weight, and cause the onset of the illness.

Depression continues to be a good analogy as in your post: a bad experience that makes you feel sad isn't depression. But if you're vulnerable to a mood disorder then this kind of experience can trigger an episode.

I have no data or anything, just musing. :) The prevalence of ED has risen in recent decades, though, hasn't it?

Nobody Girl said...

Thank you for this post! It helps clear up some assumptions about ED that people carry. While it can be the cause for some, for so many of us, it's not! Like you mentioned, it can provide a context. And like someone before me mentioned, the trigger could also be lots of other things. (For myself, it formally began once I lost weight while ill and simultaneously amidst trauma.) I think it is dangerously reductive to think that media is the main perpetrator of our EDs. I'd like to think there is more to us than that one-liner.

Katie said...

Funnily enough, I never felt that my anorexia had anything to do with the media (in fact, one of my 'perpetuating factors' was that being underweight made me LESS attractive, and I felt safer) but in recovery it is driving me up the wall. I'm trying to get back to a healthy BMI and between various organisations changing their specified lower BMI limit from 20 to 18.5 (I could never maintain that low without restricting) and the obsession with healthy eating being all over the media I think I am suffering more from what a lay person might think of as anorexic concerns now than I was when I was 35lbs lighter! How are people in recovery from eating disorders supposed to live in this culture without ending up feeling either deeply ashamed or like a complete anarchist?
Oh wow, that turned into a bit of a rant. I only meant to say that I agree with you and that this was a very well written post. And that I voted for you yesterday.

Cathy (UK) said...

I have very strong opinions on this, so I won't ramble at length. Suffice to say that I agree with the 3 'P's.

I've touched on this a lot on my YouTube channel, including in a recent video on 'non-fat-phobic' anorexia nervosa.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STCbFLwU9m0

I posted a video titled 'Anorexia and Skinny Celebrities' about a year ago.

In short: Does the media play a role in EDs? Probably yes - in maintaining the ED - for some. Does the media cause EDs? NO!

Carrie Arnold said...

Chartreuse,

I would have to say that yes, malnutrition for any reason (even a bad case of the stomach flu) could trigger anorexia. Some people called these "serendipitous anorexics" since they weren't *trying* to lose weight, but I hate that term. Anorexia is anorexia, whether it was triggered by the stomach flu, a diet, or a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the planet.

A:) said...

I like this post Carrie. Thanks for remembering my question! The study said 59% to 82% so I guess there was some variance, but regardless, ED's are strongly genetic.

I do believe that EDs are strongly maintained by perpetuating factors and that the media doesn't help recovery. But I certainly never lost weight for the sole reason of looking like a model, it was more of a side benefit (I felt better about myself) but during recovery emphasis on thinness in the media didn't make things any easier. . .

A:)

Crimson Wife said...

As a mom of 2 girls, I really, really, REALLY hope that there's not an 82% chance they will inherit my ED...

Joanna said...

Dear Carrie,

Your post is thoughtful, candid and thorough. Thank you.

I agree that the media does not cause eating disorders. However, the media does play a role in supporting eating disorders by displaying impossible bodies as if they were normal and easy to maintain in a healthy way.

The lap band advertisements are worrisome as well. Here in Los Angeles we have billboards as well as radio and I think TV ads touting the simplicity and speed of lap band procedures to instantly remove pounds and unhappiness.

These procedures are advertised as if they were a convenient and simple way to bring freedome and happiness. I can appreciate someone wanting that promise to be true. But a quick fix doesn't touch on the underlying reasons for the weight. It just strips a person of defenses leaving her more vulnerable.

Deep psychological work is required for long lasting freedom.

Thank you for bringing up the topic and allowing comments. You've gotten some wonderful responses.

best regards,

Joanna

Joanna said...

Dear Carrie,

Your post is thoughtful, candid and thorough. Thank you.

I agree that the media does not cause eating disorders. However, the media does play a role in supporting eating disorders by displaying impossible bodies as if they were normal and easy to maintain in a healthy way.

The lap band advertisements are worrisome as well. Here in Los Angeles we have billboards as well as radio and I think TV ads touting the simplicity and speed of lap band procedures to instantly remove pounds and unhappiness.

These procedures are advertised as if they were a convenient and simple way to bring freedome and happiness. I can appreciate someone wanting that promise to be true. But a quick fix doesn't touch on the underlying reasons for the weight. It just strips a person of defenses leaving her more vulnerable.

Deep psychological work is required for long lasting freedom.

Thank you for bringing up the topic and allowing comments. You've gotten some wonderful responses.

best regards,

Joanna

Anonymous said...

Thank You!
Recovery is so possible!! I am recovered from anorexia and bulimia and now I am working at a residential treatment home helping others.
And I love it!!
Check us out!
www.theblissproject.com

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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