Is the media to blame for eating disorders?

The short answer is: not as much as you might think.

Don’t get me wrong: the thin ideal perpetrated by the media in Western cultures is in no way helpful to our well-being. Being faced with endless images of lithe, toned demi-gods usually doesn’t make us feel particularly happy about our own garden-variety, lumpy physiques. This happens because a lot of market research has been conducted over the years and has concluded that happy people spend less money. This is a problem if “people spending money” is your corporate mission statement.

Social comparison, on the other hand, is a really good way to get people to spend money. Feeling socially accepted is so important for our psychological well-being that it’s number three on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Numbers one and two, by the way, are things like breathing and not having cancer. By that rationale, being socially accepted seems like a pretty good financial investment.


So: artificially inflating our value compared to others provides us with an incentive to spend money on things which might decrease that gap. The more we are surrounded by images of people who are way more beautiful, successful and popular than us, the more compelled we are to invest in products which promise to make us better than the horrible losers we are in comparison. This isn’t exactly an industry secret, but it’s really difficult to fight against it on a daily basis when we already expend a lot of energy on things like working jobs and taking care of our families (illicit lovers, cats, potted plants, etc.).

Here’s an illustration: a 2006 study found that 86% of the young women who took part had internalised the “thin ideal” – that is, they had positive associations with thinness and negative associations with fatness. This was regardless of what they subjectively believed to be true.

Of course, placing excessive value on thinness is also very common in anorexia and, on the surface, it does seem like the two are linked. But, as Jane Polivy and CP Herman wrote in a 2002 paper on the subject:

Exposure to the media is so widespread that if such exposure were the cause of [eating disorders], then it would be difficult to explain why anyone would not be eating disordered.

Valuing thinness simply isn’t enough for an eating disorder to develop. If people with anorexia are simply (or even mostly) trying to emulate models, why aren’t most people anorexic?

Anorexia nervosa (the eating disorder most commonly blamed on media influence) is very complex. We still aren’t entirely sure what “causes” it. Genetics seem to play a role to some extent. There are also some common personality features, such as perfectionism or a tendency to be more obsessive. People with anorexia often have a need for very rigid self-control and seem to “pick” eating as their target behaviour because it’s relatively more available, convenient and has measurable consequences (weight loss).

The media certainly does a good job at cultivating body dissatisfaction and general misery. But images of thin, beautiful people are not enough for someone to develop an eating disorder. They certainly don’t help, but using the media as a scapegoat for an incredibly complex psychological disorder is rather reductionist. If anything, anorexia is the diametric opposite of vanity.

Edit 28/05/2013:

Here is an appropriate first person account excerpt, from today’s article by Nichi Hodgson in the New Statesman:

Let me be clear: fashion magazines did not cause my anorexia; they merely “fed” my perfectionistic compulsion, a product of emotional turmoil at home and my hot-house schooling at a competitive girls’ academy.