First, it’s important to note that I am not qualified to claim I know how and why eating disorders originate. What I can do is share my own thoughts based on my own experiences and observations, and from what I have tried to teach myself.
I like to think I’m quite self-aware, unfortunately having an awareness of myself and some of the influencers on my behaviours doesn’t mean I can fix them on my own. Being able to understand the reasons behind our actions and thoughts is a huge part in recovery from any mental illness, but being introspective won’t ‘fix’ you; in fact introspection is arguably part of the issue for people who are overly critical of themselves; hence why I think you need to talk to others, be open and seek help from someone trained.
It’s hard not to talk about eating disorders or body image without the role of the media being mentioned. Do I personally think the media plays a part in creating warped body image? Yes, absolutely. Do I think it is the reason for eating disorders – that is where it is a bit more complicated. The media is a social construction and there is evidence that genetics and biology play a part in some eating disorders.
What the media can do, in my opinion, is compound the development of eating disorders in those prone. However, the media without a shadow of a doubt leads to many having low body confidence, feelings of inadequacy and diet culture. It just isn’t perhaps the root cause of all eating disorders. However, this is perhaps my own experience biasing my judgement here. I am fairly positive genetics and biology played a part in the development of my own eating disorder. It goes too far back to be completely based on media influence. I was hyper aware of my body and felt inadequate about it at age 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 and so on. I wasn’t exposed to anything as a toddler that could “cause” that. However, as I aged and particularly as a teenager the commonly promoted female ‘ideal’ dented what little self-worth I had even more.
However, does growing up from an early age with saturated images of how we are ‘meant’ to look perhaps develop in those not genetically predisposed, eating disorders in adolescence? Maybe. What I am sure of is, is that exposure to the ‘thin ideal’ in mass media leads to body dissatisfaction. If it didn’t we wouldn’t have a diet industry.
According to research 25-30% of patients with bulimia have a previous history with anorexia, I very much fell into that category. However, for the majority of bulimics it emerges after a period of dieting. Not everyone will go on to develop bulimia, or even anorexia but I think I would find it hard to find a female who has not attempted to ‘diet’; and by diet I don’t mean just cutting out junk food and generally eating more nutritious whole food, but diet in that they cut their calories to create a deficit that will spur on weight loss. Most diets like this for women can often mean cutting to 1200 or less. Like I’ve said, I’m not qualified (so seek the advice of a health professional when it comes to this stuff!) but in my opinion for most females this is too low to maintain for any prolonged period of time, especially if you are exercising regularly too. Most would probably feel hungry on a calorie intake like this. Hence why it is estimated 95% who crash diet gain the weight back and more. This type of crash dieting also has the ability to damage your resting metabolic rate. The irony of my eating disorder is that it left me with a ‘sluggish’ metabolism that adversely impacted my ability to lose weight. The past year or two I’ve made a concerted effort to try and address that through strength training and actually increasing my calories (gradually), but that is another post for another time! Without losing my point here, the fact that most women will ‘diet’ like this is a direct result of what is consistently shoved in our faces in the media about how women are meant to look and what is made out as desirable to men.
I don’t doubt that men experience this too but I can’t comment on that in the same way, because I’m basing most of this on my experience and perspective as a female.
The dangerous thing about media portrayal of body image is that we assume it is only the overt images that can influence – model campaigns, advertising, magazines – but it is more endemic than that, it is promulgated in the films and TV shows we watch, in the bands and musicians we listen too. Most follow a certain body ‘ideal’ and when they don’t it is widely talked about how refreshingly ‘real’ that particular actress or musician is. “Oh wow, look at them, they are ‘normal’”. This very act in and of itself still promotes the idea that it may be normal but it is not DESIRABLE to look like that, and so we still feel inadequate. How about we just saturate all media context with various shapes and sizes AND NOT PASS COMMENT ON ANY! When I walk down the street the women I see are the not the women I see portrayed in the vast majority of TV, film and music.
I am still not confident in how I look but I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I never can and will look like what the majority of media images promote I should look like, not if I want to remain on a healthy calorie intake that won’t impact me physically or mentally.
The thing is I can look like that, I have looked like that, but I was starving myself and fighting tooth and nail against my natural body shape. Unless I drop my calories incredibly low, dangerously low, even with a rigorous exercise and diet regime I will not be a UK size 6 again. It is not how I am built to look. I can’t maintain that in a healthy way. Some girls can and that is fine but it is also fine if you can’t. We are not built and made the same way and that is ok. The world would be a pretty boring place if we all had matching personalities so it’s fair to assume if we all looked the same way it’d be pretty uninteresting too.
Now it’s not just when it comes to weight and body image that the media has a lot to answer for. We feel shit about our skin, our hair, our height because an ‘ideal’ is promoted that does not exist! What is even more worrying is if I noticed it as a teenager, and I notice it as an adult, it must be ten times worse for children and teenagers growing up in a world in which the body ideal is not just promoted via traditional media, but unfortunately through social media.
The media portrayal of the ‘ideal’ body serves the purpose of suggesting that our bodies are merely objects to be looked at. For most of my life I failed to see that my body is so much more than an ornament. It can fight off disease, it can help me run, climb, jump, bear children. It is home to my mind. Our bodies are more than just ornaments and it is time the media and us as consumers of it recognised this.