Let me repeat myself: The media doesn’t cause EDs

Last month, I was asked to contribute an essay to the magazine Emirates Woman about whether the media causes EDs. They were having a debate–a 2-page spread–between two different people about the relative importance of EDs and the media.

My editor emailed me the final copy today, and I’m excited to share it with you.


“It started with stickers.

“In treatment for severe anorexia nervosa, I was given two sheets of stickers and a stack of magazines as a project for a body image group. One sheet of stickers said: ‘This ad promotes healthy body image!’ and had a smiley face. The other sheet said: ‘This ad promotes eating disorders’ and was adorned with a frowny face. The idea was to learn how toxic advertising was and, consequently, how the media might have caused my eating disorder.EW March 13 cover

“I was no stranger to advertising. No one really is. But I knew that most ads were digitally altered and that bodies – real bodies – didn’t look a thing like what was portrayed on the pages of glossy magazines. Weighing roughly half of what I currently do, what I did know was that I was terrified of food and eating. Consuming more than the bare minimum of calories left me feeling dirty, and I felt oddly compelled to purge the extra calories via exercise or other methods.

“Although I couldn’t see it in the mirror, I knew, on some level, that I had long since passed even the most whacked-out culture’s definition of ‘thin’. I didn’t want to look like a model – I’m a geek, not a fashionista. I wasn’t attractive, all sallow-skinned and bony, and I didn’t care. Starving myself was the only way that I could turn down the cacophony in my head. The less I ate and the less I weighed, the quieter my anxious thoughts got. Fashion never crossed my mind.

“It’s easy to understand how many people think that the media and models cause eating disorders. A fear of becoming fat is a prominent feature in many (though not all) eating disorders. I often told people that I’d rather die than gain 5lbs. But I wasn’t just another dieting diva or wannabe model. I was afraid of gaining weight, because that meant giving up the rules and rituals that had come to govern my life. True, I enjoyed the squealed comments from salesgirls in clothing stores that I was so skinny. But, a lack of this admiration and envy wouldn’t have deterred me from starving myself.

“Scientific research has also confirmed the lack of connection between the media and eating disorders. A study in the American Journal Of Psychiatry found that 50 to 85 per cent of the reason that, say, I developed anorexia and my best friend from high school didn’t, was due to our different genetic backgrounds. A follow-up study in the Archives Of Psychiatry showed that only five per cent of this different risk was due to broad cultural factors like the media. This confirms studies that suggest eating disorders tend to run in families, due to shared genetic factors. My close relatives are 12 times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder. When it comes to anorexia, genes trump culture.

“So what’s the big deal? Why does it matter what causes eating disorders? For one, it affects who we think are at risk and how quickly they are diagnosed. Men, minorities, children and older adults all suffer from eating disorders, but because they’re not adolescent females, their symptoms are frequently ignored by doctors, family and friends. It also affects our assumptions about the seriousness of the disease. If we think eating disorders are the preserve of vain women, we are less likely to view them as requiring treatment and more likely to blame the victim. No, we can’t just snap out of it and, although normalising nutrition is crucial, eating a cheeseburger won’t cure us.

“After I divulged my own history of anorexia, many women have told me either that they wished they had my problem, or that they understood what my life was like, because they had asked their husbands if their butts looked fat. Comparing bad body image to a full-blown eating disorder is like comparing a paper cut with an amputation. Since we are all affected by media messages, it’s easy to conflate normal body image woes with eating disorders. But these are actually not the same.

“I believe that the media does play a big role in eating disorders, but not the one you might think. The media has a profound impact on how we think about eating disorders. Most media coverage of eating disorders focuses on celebrities and is printed in the ‘style’ sections of newspapers. It perpetuates the myth that eating disorders are a choice, that they are not that serious, and that if sufferers weren’t so vain, they wouldn’t suffer. Eating disorders are real illnesses that kill up to one in five chronic sufferers. The sooner we can remove the focus on the media, the sooner we can put our energies towards developing more effective treatments.”

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26 Responses to “Let me repeat myself: The media doesn’t cause EDs”

  1. EXCELLENT post. Excellent article.

    But I am left wondering… where did you end up putting your stickers???? 😀

    • Carrie Arnold March 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      I’m sure I slapped them on the magazines like the Good Girl that I was. I might have even believed it a bit, at the time, since no one had told me that there was anything else to think about what caused EDs.

      • In college I found a newspaper article that had a big drawing of a chocolate chip cookie with a mean, laughing face, and 2 arms reaching out from the sides like they were clutching at the reader… and underneath the cookie was printed, “…whose god is their belly, whose end is their destruction…” or something like that. I’m thinking that article would get a frowny face, for sure. But at the time, I thought it hilarious, and cut it out and taped it to my dorm room door! 😀

  2. Thank you, thank you, a million times. Maybe one day this will actually get through to people. The idea that “media”, which practically all of us are subjected to, could cause a disease that, relatively speaking, very few of us get is so preposterous. It boggles my mind that people really think it’s that simple. But what it is is that they WANT to believe it’s that simple, so they can ignore it or sneer at it, and not have to actually do the work of figuring out what it really is about, how we really do treat it, etc. They want it to be nothing so they don’t have to care 🙁

    • It is as if Alison was reading my own thoughts …I want to heartily second her wise, articulate response/reaction to your brilliant article Carrie…

      Very much in agreement with Alison’s last statement “…they WANT to believe it’s simple..and not have to actually do the work of figuring out what it really is about”…and “They want it to be nothing so they don’t have to care.”

      This last phrase produced tears from eyes that have not allowed them for years.

      As a “long-timer” as well as “old-timer” regarding anorexia…I found myself nodding furiously during Carries’ mention of the “neglected” anorexia populations..including boys, men …and older women. There seems to be a pervasive acceptance of anorexia for young girls and women up to age 25 or
      so …but after that you are treated as a freak or someone who has “had the chance already to have HAD children”…and “lived a life”…I equate this thinking to a “Let’s let the old dog ‘go’..but my aren’t puppies cute and let’s make sure we fix them-when-sick!” mentality. Small wonder a hallmark of this disease is to simply “disappear” or “fade away”.

      It infuriates me when the media is constantly blamed for creating ED’s..At my age, the last thing I aspire to be is a 20 year old model…I do not try to “resemble” my daughter and am not jealous of her youth..I KNOW that, for me, it is a twisted quest for “control” in a life where decisions made are seldom my own. By the way..the “paper-cut-vs-amputation” analogy?…Spot-on.

      This article necessitates being shared with family, friends and all ED “teams”. Simply…Thank You.

  3. Kelsey Wallour March 6, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Agree with all of the other comments. THANK YOU for trying to dispel this myth. Bad enough that there is so much stigma outside of the ED community about eating disorders, much less that the media-myth is still perpetuated within it…
    You’re awesome – keep doing what you are doing 😀

    • I am keen to find out what are the names of the study mentioned in this articular, particular the study in the American Journal Of Psychiatry.

  4. I used to argue this with my treatment team, but finally gave up because they seem to be set in their ways of believing media DOES cause EDs. During my ED my style consisted of over-sized everything- I can’t think of a ‘fashionista’ who dresses the way I did. Thank you for another great post, Carrie.

  5. This is incredible! BRAVO. I am sharing this with everyone.

  6. Carrie, heritability is a population measure, though. You can’t apply it to any individual person. A heritability of 80% DOES NOT mean 80% of the reason someone developed an ED is because of genetic factors. It is a population measure that’s NOT necessarily stable and dependant on the heterogeneity of the environment.

    • Carrie Arnold March 6, 2013 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks for the clarification. The genetics person who initially explained it to me said that it means that heritability means that X% of the reason someone has a disorder and another person doesn’t is due to genetics. What’s the more accurate way for me to rephrase it? That up to 80% of the reason some people in the US have EDs and others don’t is due to genetics? Does that capture it more accurately?

      • Yeah. But keep in mind, the heritability values from different studies have been from about 33-83%, so it is a big gap. It is also important to emphasize that the number tells us nothing about the actual genetic variation (how many genes, what genes, etc..). And like I said, it is something that can change drastically depending on the environment, even though the underlying causative genetic factors might stay exactly the same (in a homogenous environment, any variation we see is going to be due to genetic factors, for example, but in an increasingly heterogenous environment that number may decrease.)

  7. Thanks for this blog and the opportunity to comment. I’ve been fighting my ED for 20 years. Everyone in my family is fat, it’s so disgusting. I was never influenced by media, just by feelings of insanely low self esteem and loads of self hate. I think my ED is the one thing I’ve ever been good at. My heart goes out to everyone here and ill enjoy all the entries. Xo

    • Understanding, deeply, the connection you’ve made between “insanely low self-esteem” and ED’s..with the media’s influence figuring little if at all. I almost gasped when I read your description of your ED as “the one thing I’ve ever been good at”. Same. My heart goes out to you as well.

  8. Laura Collins March 7, 2013 at 7:25 am

    It is amazing that we still need to repeat this but we do and THANK YOU for doing so.

    Eventually, people will see how silly this all is and it will be as obvious as the idea that giraffes got long necks by stretching them and the earth is flat. Meanwhile, keep repeating!!

  9. This is an amazing and truly inspiring article. Thank you so much for sharing!

    <3 Melissa

  10. Perhaps the problem many of us get stuck with is not the word ’cause’ but ‘contribute to’. I have no doubt that genetics is the primary cause of eating disorders, just like it is the underlying cause of many illness. But what if we accept that the media and environment may contribute to the expression of this disease? Think bulimia or BED for a moment. If you are biologically predisposed to an eating disorder and exposed to messages suggesting that eating what you want and need is forbidden, surely that creates conflict, particularly if you don’t see yourself worthy of listening to your needs. It would be logical to follow that feeling ashamed to eat as you please might lead to hiding food, denying your needs in the presence of others, and then ultimately binge eating–with or without compensatory behaviors.

    Perhaps a large part of this debate is that we clump together all eating disorders in this discussion, too. Even within the category of bulimia, the presentation of those who only purge after binging versus those who purge regardless of just how much they ate (ie due to anxiety about having anything deemed unacceptable, or as a way to relief stress) is quite different.

    That said, wonderful and valuable article!

    • Very good point. I wouldn’t say the media has no influence, and BN (and presumably BED, too) are culture-bound syndromes. My main issue with the discussion of the subject is that it’s presented as an either/or subject, when it’s both genes and environment (of which the media is just one part).

  11. Laura Collins March 8, 2013 at 7:18 am

    I remain queasy about the “contribute to” idea. Not that I don’t believe the values of the society we live in don’t affect mental illness but more because I don’t think the relationships is direct enough to be useful. I find it helpful to compare to OCD. Society’s values around, say, cleanliness, do influence the presentation of OCD in a particular person. I have no doubt that commercials about sanitizers and living with an obsessive cleaner would make a difference in a person’s OCD symptoms and in successful treatment. But I don’t think we’d ever say that these things “contribute to” OCD in the way we do with ED. And it matters, because once someone has an ED there is a lot of time spent on those factors and we’ve got a whole world of advocacy bent on “prevention” as if the relationship was that simple.


  13. Incredible post. You inspired me to write my own thoughts if you are interested in looking. I quoted you, linked to your blog, and appreciate your words. every story shared takes away more of the stigma.


  14. I don’t think media causes ED, but I know it is hard on my daughter. From a very young age (4!) she loved looking at fashion magazines. I had no idea that she had a mean voice in her head telling her that her body should look like that. That didn’t I think, start at age 4, but was true by age 6. But, I don’t think this caused her ED. In fact, she had little exposure to fashion magazines. But, her food-related OCD drew her to them like a moth to the flame. Now, at age 8, she avoids fashion magazines because “mean voice likes them.”

  15. This is one of my readings to remind myself that I am anorexia. My weight was just a little below 100 lbs and bounced back to 103 lbs right away. Yes, I stayed in the range for 2 years, but I was functioning. So, am I anorexia? I questioned about it to myself over and over.

    I didn’t try to lose weight. It just happened. What I was trying to do was doing right. I searched what the right amount to eat and to exercise for my height and age was. I decided what I should be eating in order to be healthy as well. It became a routine. A ritual routine to follow everyday. Not following it made me feel guilty, not doing the right thing. It became a jail. I created my own jail to trap myself. Now, it is hard to get out. But, I am making a progress.


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