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.
“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.”