Warning. This blog is fucking monstrous. It’s good, I swear, so stick with it!
Over the past few weeks, I think we’ve come a pretty long way, baby. We’ve not only explored what it means to have an eating disorder, what eating disorders are, their cultural roots and their biological/psychological roots, but I feel I’ve done a pretty damned good job at tying in why this shit is so very important to our existence as people within a society that is full of mixed messages, media images and psychological bombardment at every turn. I’m learning just as much along the way as you guys are, but I feel that with this blog, I need to take a bit of a step back from the academic side of things. I have been so heavily focused on introducing this topic not only as what it is at a surface value, but bringing in as much sociological analysis as humanly possible while still trying to make the reading fun, enlightening, and easy(ish) to get through.
As my second to last blog post for credit, I thought I’d make this one a little special. It is essentially the lead in to my fat blog, the post I’ve been itching to get at for some time now. I cannot, however, possibly write about fatism, body shame, and how carrying some extra pounds has been portrayed as a fate worse than death without first talking a little bit about how the media actually influences us as a socialization agent (and a prevalent one at that) to be dissatisfied with ourselves in the first place. Before I get to that, however, I want to take a bit of time to address one of the consequences suffered by those with eating disorders at the hand of these media (mis)representations and advertising messages
ED: Myths, Misconceptions, and Just Plain Bullshit
So, I’ve said it before, culture and societal ideals that are constantly changing and shifting have a huge hand in the triggers to eating disorders and play a major role in the perpetuation of eating disorder culture. Though they are not the be all end all, they take the first place medal when it comes to the perpetuation of the knowledge we have regarding such issues as disordered eating, what it is, where it comes from, and how it is received within society itself. Popular culture, the media, and advertisements are very powerful in the perpetuation of not only dominant ideology when it comes to times of war, times of struggle, and times of joy, but also dictates much of the accessibility people in general have to a topic – essentially the media is where many people receive the majority of their education (and if you don’t see something wrong with that, run. Run now). This is more and more common among the children in or society, but I’ll get to that later.
Eating disorders themselves, or ideas surrounding those who are unfortunate enough to have been graced with an ED of their own have more often than not been built, shaped, packaged and repackaged by the media and advertising (especially magazines, television shows and commercials and talk shows) as the embodiment of a certain list of symptoms that are personified by an individual who looks and acts in a specific way, has specific habits, comes from a specific background, and so on. It’s akin to stereotyping different races of people. In the past, the way a person looked dictated just about everything there was to “know” about them. Historically, a person with dark skin may be assumed to be a lesser human being, or is unintelligent or savage – just because of their skin color. I’m not saying this sort of shit doesn’t happen today, but historically, stereotyping was a legitimate form of knowledge. It helps us develop love and hated for others, and makes it easier to dehumanize, other, and ostracize entire populations. In essence, stereotyping, or in this case, lack of education and proper knowledge, is harmful, and causes problems – not only for those being stereotyped, but for those doing the stereotyping. There are risks of the typed group embodying those characteristics, maintaining the incorrect idea of the dominant force, and then there’s the dominant group itself, walking around thinking they know what they’re talking about
(Ewen & Ewen 2008) ! It’s bullshit, I say, and it doesn’t only apply to racism. I would argue that the stereotypes surrounding ED and those in a relationship with ED are preventing people from knowing the truths and facts behind this disorder (like the fact that they are extremely biologically based). This is a big problem. I’ve said this before, but ED kills more people than any other psychological disorder, doesn’t that in itself scream that we need to draw some attention to the issue and educate the public about it!? Eating Disorders are far more prevalent within society than we think they are, so much so that it floors me that they aren’t talked about in a more serious manner.
So, I’m going to give you an overview on how this is going to work. This is a vast topic, and I could be writing for miles if I didn’t make some sort of game plan (it makes navigating this post a little easier for you aswell).
Order of Events:
- Myths and Misconceptions
- The Media (How it effects the ideas surrounding ED, why it is so prevalent)
- Media Literacy (Some positive resistance)
Myths and Misconceptions
I’ll admit, when I was younger, I had a picture painted in my mind as to what a person with an eating disorder looked like. Mainly an idea of “the Anorexic” – SHE was a bone rack, a scary skinny, skeleton lady who can barely walk, eats a half a cup of bran flakes a day and weighs 65 lbs. I also thought that having an eating disorder had everything to do with appearance, and the physical aspect of weight loss. I had no idea that it was considered a psychological illness until several years ago (at some point in high school). Now, I’m not saying that this extreme does not exist. People get very, VERY sick, and they deserve as much help and attention as the next. This ideal I had however, this stereotype… I learned it from watching television. Dr. Phil to be exact. I associated what I saw to be applicable to the other situations in life that had to do with this topic. Anorexic people were skinny, miserable women. I won’t lie – this stereotype stuck with me from time to time during my struggle with my diagnosis. I remember thinking things like “but, I’m not skinny enough to have anorexia”, or “I’m afraid people won’t believe that I’m sick because I don’t look anorexic”.
These irrational thought patterns aren’t cool, but it’s interesting the lasting influence these stereotypes have had within my mind.
Do a google search of myths and misconceptions surrounding anorexia – you’ll learn a lot, promise. I used internet searches not only to confirm what I felt were the circulating myths surrounding ED, but to get a bit more info and insight into what people think about these myths, and the way they characterize the truths attached to them. So, here is a list of some of my favorite myths that I have come across not only online, but within my experience with ED. Remember, these are myths. This means they are not truths. They are far from truths:
Individuals with anorexia are just trying to get attention
- This one is interesting because I feel as if other issues that have been deemed “attention seeking” behaviors as well, such as cutting or self-harm link to this particular myth. Though this may be true for some people as a cry for help, when caught in the throws of an ED, you are definitely not wanting any attention because of it. More often than not people with an ED avoid people at all costs, making this a little counter-productive. Keep in mind, ED plays on the brain. What could have started out as a cry for help develops into much more. The person then, is not looking for attention, but is stuck within ED’s cycle.
Anorexia is about vanity. If a person with anorexia says ‘I feel fat’, it is just to get compliments.
- Anorexia is more about trying to gain control over one aspect of your life or another, or is a way people deal with pain – akin to an alcoholic or drug addict. This myth pisses me off. Though some Pro-ED individuals may fish for compliments in order to act as a trigger to drive their ED, I can personally say that when I ‘feel’ fat, I don’t go around telling people that in order to get reassurance about how skinny and sick I look. I can recognize that this is ED talking, and he wants me to turn to him, not recovery.
People choose Anorexia
- Fuck, I could write a book about this. I have been accused of this by people very close to me. I know that people in my position have also been accused of this. ED is an illness that chooses you, you do not choose ED. What I think the misconception is here is that ED starts out as a "harmless" diet in some cases. Dieting is a choice. When things go too far, well, the choice is out of your hands. It hurts me that some people I know do not fully understand this, but I can’t blame them for what they may understand at face value.
Eating Disorders are primarily about food and weight
- It isn’t solely a problem with food. Restriction, fasting, purging… All of that … it’s signs of other underlying issues within the lives of those affected.
Anorexia is a rich, white girl problem
- I laughed out loud at this one (a common one that came up in my google searches). More and more research is pointing to this as absolute bullshit. Anyone can be predisposed to a disorder. Like I’ve mentioned in previous blogs – it’s the triggers that are shifting, changing, and becoming more prevalent. Western culture and ideals are on the rise and are pretty much dominating the world. People of other races, cultures, and ethnicity seem to be adopting them, and a correlation between that and the prevalence of eating disorders within their social groups exists (more about this later).
- We can’t forget about the guys, either! Yes, most affected by ED are young females, but boys and men also suffer. According to recoveryranch.com, the number of men seeking help has doubled over the past decade making men representative of 10% of those affected.
People with Anorexia do not engage in binge eating
- Binging can be caused by chemical triggers in the brain that are brought about by certain foods we eat that act as appetite stimulants. Some people are more susceptible than others, but just about everyone is capable of binging (however, the more clinical definition of “binge” in which a person may black out or lose consciousness while eating is not as common). Plenty of anorexics develop bulimic tendencies as they start refeeding their bodies. In my case, I get hungry AFTER I eat. It’s my body realizing that it can have food. It fights back against ED and wants me to stock up on food in case I starve again. Sometimes I feel that if I give into the hunger, I will not stop. So yes, that puts me at risk of a binge, and I am not the only one. The inability to regain control over the satiety center of your brain is one of the underlying causes of this.
A person cannot have Anorexia if they eat three meals a day
- Untrue! Bullshit! Not eating at all (fasting) is not the only means of food restriction (I should know). A person may limit the types of food they eat, or the amount (a cup of dry cereal and fourteen grapes for lunch, for example). A person may eat normally for a day or two and then follow up with days of fasting. They may only eat a certain kind of food (this includes eating only junk food, certain soups, or a certain type of vegetable).
- I eat three “meals” a day (which are getting to be more “normal person” like as the days go by) and two snacks. I am starving to death. It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it in this case.
Anorexia is all about control
- I can see some truth in this, but I think the misconception lies in the fact that the person who is sick may feel as if he or she is in control of themselves when they participate in their ED behavior. They may control food in order to feel as if they’ve gained mastery over some other uncontrollable aspect of their lives. In all reality, it’s ED that controls you. It becomes a coping mechanism and really is all about your lack of control.
Other myths I have come in contact with include “you see a fat person when you look in the mirror” (which I argue against. I see a very skinny, frail body, but I am guilty of cutting myself into pieces and focusing on how certain parts of me are “fat”… Almost like the fragmentation of women in media), “Anorexics don’t get hungry and don’t like food” (trust me, we’re hungry people. We’re starving to death, for fuck sakes. Food is an obsession above all else. An obsession and an enemy), or that if a person is thin, they must be anorexic.
That last one is troubling. Someone may have a thin body type, they may have a sickness that is not anorexia that causes severe weight loss, or they could be of a completely normal weight, even “overweight”. Remember, many people with bulimia maintain “normal” body weights. They are still sick, but you may not be able to tell by their appearance. In the case of anorexia – the image of the bone rack is quite popular. Starvation, however, is starvation. I’ll have to go on a hunt for the article, but I remember reading about a man who was severely overweight – to the point of morbid obesity. He died of starvation and had many symptoms of anorexia. Sad, yes, but very interesting.
OK, so we’ve seen a few of my favorites when it comes to some of the myths surrounding ED, more specifically anorexia. It makes us ask ourselves – where the eff does this nonsense come from!? I know I’ve wondered this more than once over the course of the past couple of years, and especially within the past couple of months. It seems all fingers of blame are pointed toward the media. In my opinion, that’s kind of unfair. I mean, Spettigue and Henderson (2004) raise the idea that because we are all exposed to the mass media and there is no escaping it, why doesn’t everyone on the face of the planet have an eating disorder? Good fuckin’ point, Spettigue and Henderson, good fuckin’ point! It’s like I said before, the triggers are changing. That which influences us and socializes us is shifting constantly, shoving ideals, dominant ideologies, and expectations at us at every twist and turn – but that is not the cause of these disorders, they are simply a vehicle for provocation just as influences such as biology, family, friends, and teachers play a part on what influences life. In simple terms, it can be the brain’s fault; the media just gives it the kicker. How is this happening, you might ask? Well, I’ve got a few examples for you.
One way in which we can see the media making prevalent ED all around the world is through studying the effects of Western media in other places and within other cultures. Exposure to theWestern ideal changes perceptions people have about their bodies, and therefore may lead to susceptibility to falling into disordered eating patterns. The Body Project (2012) highlights the prevalence of media and its effect on eating disorders through providing us with a bit of research done originally by Anne Becker and Rebecca Burwell of the Harvard Eating DisorderCenter in 1999. Essentially they found that media exposureincreased the incidence of ED within the island nation of Figi. Before the introduction of Western television, the body ideals surrounding beauty included larger bodies (bodies classified as obese in the West). These bodies were evidence of high status and health. Three years after Western television had been introduced, that number of women who reported using vomiting to control their weight increased 5 fold and a larger number of girls felt “too fat” and reported trying dieting. Essentially the more TV that was watched, the more body dissatisfaction there was. (Important to remember here is that TV didn’t cause the women to develop Eating Disordered behavior – if it was the cause, then they would all have suffered. It was a vehicle).
The media, is essentially giving us mixed messages about our bodies. It influences us to go against what is actually meant to be (e.g.: women naturally carry extra weight because we make babies, deal with it). Being exposed constantly to figures of the new feminine ideal not only risks increasing body dissatisfaction among women but heightens the feelings of needing to change, and may influence those heterosexual males out there to favor the thin female body (a body that is impossible to obtain by most) (Harrison and Cantor 1997). Then there’s the whole crash diet market and the magazines that advertise a way to lose weight fast that shares a page with a recipe for double chocolatey killer brownies with nuts, fudge and whipped cream. It’s akin to the “be sexy, not sexual”, double standard. Treat yourself, but know how to become thin (and therefore beautiful). It especially ties in sexuality when we look at the way food is advertised. It’s advertised as indulgence from which you must exert control and restrain yourself from. Food is a seductress trying to ruin your life. There are good girls who resist and bad girls who give into temptation. It’s a little tiring. Of course, this is marketing. They need to sell a product. In order to do this they need to make people feel they need to product. If you make people feel bad about their bodies and then present a solution, then by God people should hop on the band wagon (even if that band wagon may support restricted calorie diets, glorify restriction as a healthy diet behavior, or use pills to make you feel full so you do not have to eat).
Interestingly enough, it’s women’s magazines that show diet ads 10.5 times more than men’s magazines. They become the how to guide to the idea that obtaining an impossibly thin body will make you happy, healthy, desireable and successful. Of course, nothing is mentioned about smarts or personal drive – that isn’t important. You can’t accessorize you 3.9 GPA. Fashion mags also support the anorexic desire to participate in restriction and of course will affect those who already have internalized the thin beauty ideal or are highly unsatisfied with their bodies. Because this is becoming a reality for people at younger ages, advertisers are creating a culture where people grow up thinking it is normal to be dissatisfied with themselves. There’s also more of a chance they will buy into the bullshit being advertised. Smart marketing, sure, not so smart when it comes to the backlash we see as disordered eating, self esteem issues and preoccupation with weight becoming a normal part of the female experience come into play (Spettigue& Henderson 2004). The reality is, that there has been an overall increase in the average size of women in the West, yet the thinness of models and actresses becomes more and more emphasized. It creates even more of a body discrepancy and leads to many more problems.
Monkey See, Monkey Do. That’s what I’m talking about here. Well… Not necessarily monkeys, but children (a species I would argue can be viewed as monkeys from timr to time. Anyway…)
All of these ideals perpetuated. All of this bullshit staring you in the face as you watch television, walk down the street, order your lunch, exist… It all acts as what we in the business call socializers. These socializers work to shape your thoughts and opinions toward a certain topic. You grow up and embody these ideals, and they become a part of you without you even knowing it. Think about the characteristics we attribute to little boys and girls – dressing girls in pink and boys in blue, celebrating cuteness in females and toughness in males – it all came from somewhere. You were socializaed to think that way. Anyway, the media is prevalent enough in perpetuating ideals and shaping public opinion around what it means to be attractive (which has everything to do with your looks, apparently). The advertisers are smart about it, and they start pushing those messages early on, when kids are just wee ones.
As a working example...
There’s Barbie. She’s this plastic lady who embodies everything that is “girl”. She’s usually got long blonde hair, beautifully done makeup, legs that go on for miles, a tiny waist, great tits, and the perfect life. Her image has changed over the years, sure. Her dimensions were even changed in order to make her more “normal” because it was feared she was promoting the thin ideal to little girls and promoting diets – in essence heightening the chances of disordered eating. Even today, if Barbie was a real live woman, her measurements (32, 17, 28) are typical of an anorexic woman. Barbie is assumed by some to be a real role model for little girls. So, if a very sick woman is the toy version of the role model for little girls, they are bound to see shrinking models and airbrushed magazine cover art as normal, desirable, and something they should work toward. Living by the mantra “I want to be like Barbie”, we can run into all sorts of issues. You see, girls are being socialized to think that this is the norm for women. I’m not the only one who sees a problem with this I hope. Barbie is really good at promoting images of attractiveness and popularity as being life goals, tells us that the ideal female body is stick thin and large breasted, that women should spend lots of time and money on their appearance, and this is all that matters. Yes, Barbie has been introduced as a Mommy and a career woman, but the best-sellers are still the fashion-oriented dolls (Somethingfishy.com). I’m not saying that every kid who owns a Barbie is going to end up with Anorexia – it’s just worth knowing the influence children’s toys actually have on young people.
Speaking of influence, I mentioned that advertisers are hooking kids at younger ages. The bottom line is about making money, and kids are pretty impressionable. It doesn’t help that more often than not they do dictate the things their families purchase and subscribe to. Kids have a ridiculous amount of buying power. Making them feel as if they need to fix themselves when they’re six is really only just helping the advertiser grow another consumer. Like a consumerism factory, built on our insecurities and self-loathing. Pleasant (Consuming Kids documentary). Lifestyles and ideals are being shoved at young girls and boys through advertising that forces them to grow up far too quickly. It sends across the hegemonic ideals surrounding men and women – girls are growing into a culture that pushes sexuality and unattainable beauty ideals at them (like selling padded bras to seven year olds or advertising low calorie diet food for kids or promoting muscly men as the only dudes who can get any job done within society toward young boys). For more on advertising, check out SEXY INC or Killing Us Softly 4 – two great documentaries that teach us lots about advertising, unattainable ideals, and all sorts of issues we have with this shit.
By recognizing that this crappy advertising is all around you is the first step to combating and understanding those myths and misconceptions that were posted so long ago. We need to recognize that we are being presented with a certain image of the ideal body. When the issues of ED arise, we have a very narrow base with which to work with in order to address it. This is simply because the time and energy is being put into promoting the dangerous ideals that promote disordered eating, presenting stereotypical and skewed images of those with eating disorders, and not providing the proper education about them. By becoming more well versed in understanding the media, advertising and what it is about, we can work toward getting around to properly characterizing these disorders not as stereotypes, but as harsh realities that do not affect one demographic, but many – that the statistics and images have human beings standing behind them, and they’re fucking suffering in part because the base of people who truly understand what they are going through is very small. As long as we as a culture sit back and allow images of the dominant ideal when it comes to Western beauty be normalized and continuously perpetuated without resistance (or by silencing that resistance), we are getting nowhere. By watching TV shows and allowing ads to run that glorify eating disorders (I heard some shit about last weeks Glee episode and some issues surrounding bulimia) such as ads and programs that promote restriction, dieting, and self-harm through starvation in order to obtain true beauty and happiness and not questioning that shit, we are remaining slaves to the fucking man. Remember: they want you to feel inadequate, that’s how they make their money. Your opinions don’t matter in their world so long as they are getting your dollar, so fight back.
How do we do that?
Media literacy, ladies and gentlemen. Criticizing and questioning what we see. Not taking advertising and other forms of media at face value. Researching and understanding contemporary issues so that we are not sucked in by stereotyping and myths surrounding them. Asking yourself – "what is the message I am supposed to be getting from this? How does this make me feel and why?" Teaching our young people to love themselves and love others, and by getting across to the world the fact that these current body ideals need to fucking change. Media literacy has been somewhat successful at getting the message across to people, and it has actually been found that eating disorder treatment that includes media literacy is pretty promising in helping to address self-esteem and social skills issues (Spettigue & Henderson 2004). We need to get on spreading the message that the images being presented to us are virtually unattainable to the average individual. It isn’t real. That’s the bottom line. These miracle diets and ways to tone your figure in 5 days do not work in the long term. They harm physically and they harm psychologically. They glorify disordered eating and they promote unhealthy habits. Why we still buy into all of this shit I will never know, but I do know that far more people need to have a fucking problem with it and address it. Children need to see true role-models who embody the “average”. People in general need to be socialized that the average is OK. This is an ongoing battle, and there are many people fighting it. So educate yourselves, ask questions, know that there is nothing wrong with you, and for frig sakes speak up about what you see. Openly criticize television and magazine ads. Tell people. Educate them. We aren’t going to get anywhere if we’re all silent about it.
I sense a revolution coming. It’s going to be huge, and we can all be a part of this change.
(On a more personal note: I’ll update you on things eventually… I’m going to need to take some time to do that. I mean… I’m OK, but there’s a lot to fill you in on).
Child Mind Institute. (2012). “Myths About Anorexia Nervosa”. Available: http://www.childmind.org/en/myths-about-anorexia-nervosa/
Earp, J., & Barbaro, A. (2008). “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood”. Media Education Foundation. USA.
Ewen, S., & Ewen, E. (2008). Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality. Seven Stories Press. Toronto, ON. Print.
National Centre for Eating Disorders. (2009). “The Media and Eating Disorders”. Available: http://www.eating-disorders.org.uk/media-and-eating-disorders.html
Recoveryranch.com. (2012). “5 Common myths about Eating Disorders”. Available: http://www.recoveryranch.com/articles/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-myths/
Spettigue, W. & Henderson, K.A. (2004). Eating disorders and the role of the media. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 13, 16-19.
Somethingfishy.com. (1998-2007). “The Media”. Available: http://www.something-fishy.org/cultural/themedia.php
The Body Project. (2012). “The Media”. Available: http://thebodyproject.bradley.edu/media/index.shtml
Troscianko, E. (2009). Five Anorexia Myths Explored. Psychology Today. Available: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hunger-artist/200908/five-anorexia-myths-exploded
Pictures found on Google Images