One of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders is that the media has a main role in making someone vulnerable to anorexia or bulimia.
It’s easy to make this assumption. The media is terribly persuasive in how we view beauty, our bodies and really ourselves.
In many ways, the media is to blame for the state of our body image. For our desire to diet. For the view that thinness leads to happiness. For the idea that we must wait until we lose weight to do anything.
And in many ways, the media can make it tough for someone with an eating disorder to recover with all its talk of counting calories, pin-thin ideals and focus on weight.
But media isn’t to blame for eating disorders.
Although I think our cultural ideas and beauty obsessions and diet mentality are absolutely toxic, I don’t think that if you eliminated them, you would eliminate eating disorders. Most women feel bad when they’re looking at Photoshopped models. Most women diet at some point. Most women don’t have eating disorders.
Part of the confusion might be that disordered eating is viewed as the same as eating disorders. But even though disordered eating can lead to eating disorders, they are not the same. Here’s how social worker Susan Schulherr defines disordered eating in an interview here on Weightless:
Disordered [eating] means you are eating in a way that harms you psychologically and/or physically. Psychological harm may occur when you use food for reasons other than sustenance and pleasure.
Eating to manage your emotions is probably the most common example. When eating is your go–to emotional haven, you don’t learn more effective ways to manage your emotions. When eating for psychological purposes becomes compulsive—that is, you feel driven and as if the eating is beyond your control–you are bingeing (or at least in bingeing’s neighborhood)…
When you employ weight loss strategies that can or do compromise your physical health, you are also engaging in disordered eating practices. Examples include skipping meals, fasting, cutting out whole food groups, dieting repetitively, or using laxatives or diuretics.
Eating disorder expert Sarah Ravin makes a key distinction as well. In her post on the media’s influence on eating disorders, she says that,
The way I see it, disordered eating “comes from the outside” whereas eating disorders “come from the inside.” What I mean is this: environment plays a huge role in the onset of disordered eating, such that the majority of people who live in our disordered culture (where thinness is overvalued, dieting is the norm, portion sizes are huge, etc) will develop some degree of disordered eating, regardless of their underlying biology or psychopathology.
However, about eating disorders, she writes:
In contrast, the development of an eating disorder is influenced very heavily by genetics, neurobiology, individual personality traits, and co-morbid disorders. Environment clearly plays a role in the development of eating disorders, but environment alone is not sufficient to cause them. The majority of American women will develop disordered eating at some point, but less than 1% will fall into anorexia nervosa and 3% into bulimia nervosa.
Eating disorders have existed well before our weight and dieting obsessions. Today’s thin-obsessed culture have just provided the words. Carrie says:
Eating disorders existed before thin was in, and they will probably exist after Size Zero seems as antiquated and misguided as chastity belts and foot binding. The cultural language of fat and thin and dieting are what we have to put our experience into words. They are how we frame what is happening to us. People in the Middle Ages framed anorexia has an effort to be more spiritual. Now, we look at it as an effort to be thinner or look like some supermodel. But the way we make sense of an illness is different than the illness itself.
While an eating disorder may begin as a desire to lose weight, diet or weight loss after an illness, it goes beyond wanting to look a certain way. Individuals with eating disorders cannot stop restricting, bingeing or whatever other self-destructive behaviors they’re engaging in. Carrie writes:
Yet once the disease process starts–once it kicks in–appearance is the last stinking thing most people with EDs are really thinking about. People told me that my ED was making me look atrocious. I was aware, on some level, that they were right. By that point, the ED had a life of its own.
(I’m not saying that people with disordered eating engage in unhealthy habits because they’re vain; to the contrary, many deep issues can underlie disordered eating.)
Individuals with eating disorders are also terrified of food. Not just uncomfortable with eating. But paralyzed.
Think of the thing that scares you the most. Seriously scares you. Imagine the thoughts and feelings this something conjures up. How you might have a tough time just thinking about it. How excruciating it may be for you to confront it. This is a bit helpful in thinking about what it feels like to be terrified of food when you have an eating disorder.
In her book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle With Anorexia,* about her daughter’s struggle with anorexia, Harriet Brown describes the terror, fear and frightening thoughts that can grip a person with an eating disorder every time they try to eat. (BTW the book is amazing so far, and I’ll be interviewing the author soon.) She writes,
That year, I learned just how brave my daughter is. Five or six times a day, she sat at the table and faced down panic and guilt, terror and delusions and physical pain, and kept going.
In another chapter, Brown equates her daughter’s eating to jumping out of an airplane:
[My husband] Jamie and I are crying now too, as we understand for the first time exactly how courageous our daughter is. Each time she lifts the spoon to her lips, her whole body shaking, she is jumping out of a plane at thirty thousand feet. Without a parachute.
Also, only recently are we hearing about the importance of biology and genetics in eating disorders. And they are important. As Brown writes in her book, there’s been more and more research that suggests that individuals with eating disorders may be biologically predisposed to certain personality traits and may have certain abnormalities in the central nervous system. Also, eating disorders tend to run in families. You can learn more about this research by checking out Walter Kaye’s university profile. Specifically, check out this article by Dr. Kaye.
While we’re still light years away from understanding what causes eating disorders, we are certain of one thing: The causes of eating disorders are incredibly complex, and the media isn’t a major one of them.
What are other eating disorder myths you see perpetuated over and over again? What do you think about the role of media in eating disorders, negative body image or disordered eating?
(* Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book.)
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Last reviewed: 20 Oct 2010