Media Influence on Women with Eating Disorders

THE MEDIA and its effect on young women is increasingly noted as a factor in the development of eating disorders. Bombarded with images of what the ‘perfect woman’ should look like in the fashion media perspective, young women can often feel the pressure to lose sometimes excessive amounts of weight. Over the past few years, the media has impacted on eating disorders among young girls in Ireland by creating conflicing images of the ideal body size.

According to Bodywhys – the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland and A Vision For Change, a report compiled by the Department of Health and Children (DOHC) in 2006, there are 20,000 people in Ireland with eating disorders and 200,000 people directly affected. This report also states that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition, with 80 people dying in Ireland every year.

Perhaps a more worrying statistic is that according to Eating Concerns and Media Influences in an Irish Adolescent Context – an article published in the European Eating Disorders Review – over 71 percent of Irish adolescents feel adversely affected by the way the media portrays body image and shape. The Department of Social and Family Affairs’ EBM Eating Disorders report 2007 states, “Both anorexia and bulimia are prevalent in societies where the stereotypical picture of physical attractiveness equates beauty with thinness. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to such pressures through the impact of peer pressure and media advertising.”

Eating disorders are usually developed in young women around the age of 15 with one in every 150 estimated to be affected by anorexia according to the NHS and the Royal College of Psychiatrists but can happen a lot earlier than this. 10 percent of child and adolescent psychiatric admissions in Ireland in 2011 were a direct effect of eating disorders, according to Health Research Board statistics in the Activities of Irish Psychiatric Units and Hospitals Annual Report. 83 percent of these were female.

Founder of Serenity Counselling Practice, Fierna Kennedy, sees the media as a huge issue in eating disorders and thinks it can act as a serious influence for people who suffer, especially for people who have worked in the industry itself. “Eating disorders serve a purpose for people. Having worked with ex-models, it’s never seen as a problem until they stop working and they have no control over their bodies anymore.

“It can be seen as coping through crisis or a method of controlling low-self esteem. All of it stems back to psychological and behaviour traits,” she adds.

Diets can precede an eating disorder in the vast majority of cases, according to Ms Kennedy, and this leads to an unhealthy attitude to food and weight. In a recent article in the Irish Independent, Nathalie Marquez Courtney, freelance journalist and former editor of teenage magazine KISS, writes about the effects of the media on young girls and a mother’s influence on her daughter’s body issues.

When speaking to her, Ms Marquez Courtney says the impact a mother can have on her daughter in terms of body image is huge and how explaining the concept of image manipulation can make all the difference. “What I found interesting about this piece is that it actually starts at the home and its all to do with, not only body image that your mother, your aunt or your family put out, but also how they tackle the image that the media is throwing at them. It’s the way a mother talks to her daughter about how this image was created. I think if young girls understood what went into creating these pictures, it wouldn’t be such a big issue.”

According to these experts, education and funding is key to decreasing the level of eating disorders in Ireland. There is no dedicated treatment centre in Ireland for children and young people with eating disorders, only three specialists beds for treatment in the public mental health service and two eight-bed units in the private sector. A Vision for Change has made eight recommendations for the treatment of eating disorders in HSE mental health services, including the development of a National Centre for Eating Disorders in the National Children’s Hospital and greater community awareness of eating disorders by means of public campaigns.

This report states the importance of treating eating disorders and creating public awareness, “School children, particularly girls, are continually bombarded with influential cultural material relating 
to their shape, suggesting to them what is fashionably acceptable and politically correct in terms of their appearance. The consequence is that many, perhaps the majority, engage in some degree of dieting at some time or other in childhood or adolescence.

“It is important to view the progress from dieting to eating disorder as a continuum, so responsibility and accountability on the part of those disseminating messages that indiscriminately promote thinness need monitoring.”

Irish media organisations have also done their share to make reporting on conditions like eating disorders safe and informative. Àine Travers, media assistant at Headline, the national media monitoring organisation, says that Headline works towards the publication of responsible reporting. “If you build the information and knowledge base of the people who are covering the story, then that kind of mindfulness can come more naturally then. People don’t really tend to realise what a serious mental illness it is. The coverage can be quite flippant as well so this is something we really try to counteract if possible.

“We often find when people are reporting on things like eating disorders, they focus on the physical manifestations rather than the mental effects. Conditions like eating disorders have very serious mental implications, and people need to see that as well as the physical aspect. We ask journalists when they’re writing not to use pictures of low-weight people to advertise these kind of disorders, we ask them not to print specific calories amounts the person was on when they were unwell or the weight they were.”

Fierna Kennedy believes that issues such as lack of public service treatment centres and public awaremess from the HSE are a huge problem but says the teams at St Patrick’s University Hospital and other hospitals offer great assistance to those who need help to deal with an eating disorder. She also says that there are some campaigns in the media and health profession that help to tackle these conditions. “There is a lot of work being done to make eating disorders a prominent issue in media across the globe. In Ireland, we have ones like the Dove campaign that emphasises that as long as you’re healthy, the perfect body isn’t necessary. It’s bizarre that in the Western world, size 0 could be seen as the ideal when in places like Africa, having a bit more weight is seen as much more attractive.

Services Coordinator at Bodywhys Harriet Parsons, adds to this statement, saying, “The media influence feeds into this normative discontent with body image and while it may not be the cause of an eating disorder this normative discontent perpetuates and consolidates the types of thinking that goes with an eating disorder and plays a role in making recovery very difficult for a person.

“The hype around media awareness is very important, knowing how images are manipulated. I think that education is part of it, awareness and just being conscious of not promoting a completely distorted body shape,” she adds.

Ms Marquez Courtney also sees education as a way to tackle the way young women sees software-enhanced images. “I think there should definitely be a programme in schools where they ask everyone in the class to bring in their favourite magazine, bring in anything they read, watch, celebrities they look up to and then those images are dissected and explained:  ‘well this is how this image was created’ or ‘what moves you about this photograph? Why do you want to look like this person? What do you think it says about your life if you look like this?’ It’s going to be something you’re inundated with for your entire life, so if you learn to cope with it from a young age, I feel you’ll see past it and see through it and you might start demanding something different.”

A huge part of the work Bodywhys is doing focuses on this type of work, raising awareness of media and how images are manipulated in secondary schools. As a part of their ‘Be Body Positive’ schools programme, the team work on self-esteem and body image by using exercises such as a CD-Roms with an airbrushing studio where students can un-airbrush photographs.

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