Teen Talk: Eating Disorders and the Media

 By Claudia Kelley

The holiday season is upon us once again- the time of year when we can listen to Frank Sinatra classics while shopping for gifts at the mall and spend much needed time with family members. The part of this season that we can easily ignore, however, is the elevated amount of corporate advertising- the majority of which is targeted toward young men and women. This advertising pushes and reaffirms the idea of unattainable perfection and the need to be pretty: a standard of worth that is absolutely inaccurate and unimportant. For many young people, however, the standards of beauty and perfection that exist so prevalently in the media and modern culture force a circulation of thoughts that can be extremely harmful. The overarching social pressure to look (and be) “good enough”, combined with the expectation of potential humiliation based on one’s appearance, naturally leads some people to stop respecting themselves- and their bodies- in order to maintain the status quo. Though most people do not believe that bullying is morally irreprehensible, the ideal of perfection is so deeply ingrained in our minds that it can be easy to unintentionally judge someone based on their appearance, whether it’s their clothes, hair, height, or weight. Because so much emphasis is put on the importance of “not being fat”, many fall into eating disorders. Though certainly not all eating disorders are caused by pressure to be thin and attractive, the emphasis to maintain these attributes can be overwhelming. 
Eating disorders, specifically anorexia and bulimia, are extremely serious conditions which up to 24 million people in the U.S. currently suffer from, according to The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders. 95% of people with these disorders exist among young women between the ages of 12 and 25, making the mortality rate 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females in the aforementioned age group (meaning, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness ) . Additionally, 69% of 5th-12th graders admit to forming their idea of the “perfect body shape” around photos in magazines , 81% of ten year olds admit that they are afraid of being fat , and 42% of 1st through 3rd grade girls report that they want to be thinner . Fully understanding the repercussions of an eating disorder helps to elucidate the irrefutable fact that media intervention in physical standards are extremely detrimental. Keeping with the trend of the former statistics, it is important to remember that hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-ana, pro-mia, and pro-ED (pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia, and pro-eating disorder) blogs and websites exist. These sites target impressionable young women who already feel isolated, and provide them with a sense of camaraderie and encouragement that they’re not receiving elsewhere. They provide “thinspiration” (idealizing emaciated individuals or extremely thin people as a point of inspiration), and are tremendously harmful, as they disguise eating disorders as “choices” instead of mental illnesses, and promote thinness as an ultimate goal while denying the possibility of serious health risks or complications .
Though it can be an effortless process to make unfair judgments and form opinions about people based on their physical characteristics, it is not, nor will it ever be, productive or entirely accurate. Before judging a person based on their appearance, it is important to remember that not only everyone is flawed in some way, but also, that one’s beauty and value comes from the qualities and attributes that they offer to those around them and to the world. No one deserves to have their worth as a human being ranked by society’s standard of attractiveness. 
1 American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152 (7), July 1995, p. 1073-1074, Sullivan, Patrick F.
2  Ibid.
3  Prevention of Eating Problems with Elementary Children, Michael Levine, USA Today, July 1998.
4 Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E. (1991). A Longitudinal Study of the Dietary Practices of Black and White Girls 9 and 10 Years Old at Enrollment: The HLBI Growth and Health Study. Journal of Adolescent Health, p. 27-3.
  5 Collins, M. E. (1991), Body figure perceptions and preferences among preadolescent children. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 10: 199-208.
  6 Borzekowski, D.L.G., S. Schenk, J.L. Wilson, R. Peebles. 2010. e-Ana and e-Mia: A content analysis of pro-eating disorder web sites. American Journal of Public Health.  100: 1526-1534
This was printed in the January 12, 2014 – January 25, 2014 edition.