Is the Media to Blame for Eating Disorders?

By Carolyn Ross, MD, MPH

Television, magazines, movies and books are a primary mode of entertainment for Americans of all ages. The media’s influence begins as early as toddlerhood. By age 5, children have received clear messages from the media about the physical characteristics our culture deems desirable to be thin.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, about 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to lose weight, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. By adolescence, studies show that young people are receiving an estimated 5,260 “attractiveness messages” per year from network television commercials alone.

The Sexualization of Young Girls

The messages young people receive from the media can be troubling. A Dec. 2010 issue of French Vogue created a stir when it featured 6-year-old girls in heavy make-up, designer clothing and suggestive settings. Even more outrageous is a clothing manufacturer in Colorado called Kids N Teen that sells crotchless thong panties for children.

The controversial show “Toddlers and Tiaras” has raised similar concerns. This TLC hit showcases the competitive world of child beauty pageants and features midriff-bearing young girls who are taught to prance, shake their bottoms and pose in a sexually provocative manner. Toddlers dressed as Dolly Parton, complete with padded bra, and Julia Roberts as the prostitute in “Pretty Woman,” learn that beauty is defined by fake tans, hair and teeth.

Children of the 80s, many of whom are now parents themselves, need look no farther than their childhood icons to understand the impact of the media on youth. Cartoon favorites, including Rainbow Brite, the Care Bears, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Strawberry Shortcake, have been made-over to appeal to a new generation of kids – and to match the hyper- sexualized images of females we see all over the media. Even Dora the Explorer and Angelina the Ballerina have been “modernized.”

No longer so innocent and cherubic, these characters are taller, skinner and sexier and have interests that go beyond exploring the world and helping friends in need to include fashion and make-up. As the average child gets heavier, the icons they emulate get thinner.

The Media Sends Dangerous Messages to Young Girls

Wildly disturbing to parents of young girls, these trends are also raising serious concerns among eating disorder specialists. While the causes of eating disorders are complex and typically include both genetic and environmental factors, media messages surrounding our culture’s ideals of beauty also play an important role.

The U.S. has the highest rates of obesity and eating disorders in the world. As a melting pot of people from all backgrounds, there is no genetic reason that explains this increased vulnerability to weight, body and food issues. Instead, we have to look at the messages our society sends about how we value our citizens.

There is a fair amount of research showing that what happens in the media affects the rates of eating disorders, especially among girls and women. The fact that epidemiological studies have shown that eating disorders are more prevalent in industrialized countries suggests that cultural factors play a role. In a landmark 1998 study of girls in Fiji, Harvard researchers demonstrated how the introduction of television contributed to dramatic increases in eating disorders over a three-year period. In a culture that once valued a healthy, robust physique, girls began viewing themselves as fat, going on diets and feeling depressed about the way they looked, all in an effort to look more like the Western women they saw on shows like the original “Beverly Hills 90210.”

After three years, 74 percent of Fijian teenage girls described themselves as too fat. Those who watched TV three or more nights a week were 30 percent more likely to go on a diet than their peers who watched less TV. Being called “skinny” went from a cultural insult to a worthy life goal.

Minimize the Influence of Media on Your Child

Being the parent of a young girl is a difficult job. As a result of media exposure, parents are no longer in exclusive control of their children’s perceptions of what is beautiful, but they do play an important role in mitigating the messages their children receive. Here are a few ways you can help your child make sense of the media:

Take the Focus Off Appearance. Today, children are expected to look and act much more grown up than they really are. The message they receive from the media is that they have to be slim to be beautiful, and have to be beautiful to be valued. While sexualized images are prevalent, there are very few images depicting young girls winning math or science contests or excelling in sports.

Instead of focusing on the way your child looks, work to nurture their strengths and build positive self-esteem. Point out the other areas in which your child excels, such as kindness, humor, intelligence and being a good friend. Volunteering can help children focus on issues that are more important than weight and appearance. By getting involved in activities that make them feel good about themselves, encouraging them to pursue their interests, and nurturing their strengths, parents equip their children with the confidence to resist negative media messages.

Discourage Dieting. Most parents want their children to be liked and accepted. Some try to help by teasing their child about their weight or encouraging dieting. A growing concern about childhood obesity has led some parents to focus heavily on appearance, unintentionally sending the message that their child is unloved or unaccepted because of the way they look.

While the concern about childhood obesity is significant, the threat of low self-esteem, poor body image and eating disorders is just as real and just as damaging. There is a fine line between modeling healthy behaviors and promoting the message that appearance matters most.

Rather than encouraging dieting and self-deprivation, a better message is health at every size. It is important to eat healthfully and stay active to reduce health risks, but not because falling short of the ideal weight and appearance portrayed in the media means an individual is flawed or less valuable.

Address Your Own Self-Image. In order to accept their children as they are, parents often need to work through their own issues about weight and body image. By recognizing and addressing these issues, parents can avoid passing unhealthy attitudes on to their children.

Find Positive Role Models. In addition to modeling healthy behaviors in their own lives, parents can help their children find positive role models in the media. There are a number of actresses and performers who have achieved success even though they fall outside society’s unrealistic ideals of beauty, as well as historical figures and political leaders that have accomplished more important goals than looking good.

Limit Media Exposure. Children are surrounded by media messages everywhere they turn. While it’s unrealistic to think that parents can eliminate exposure to harmful media, you can set limits on how much time your child spends in front of the TV, reading magazines and engaging with other forms of media.

Discuss Media Messages. No matter what a child looks like, they are bound to compare themselves to the images they see in the media and feel some degree of insecurity. Rather than hoping they are unaffected, talk to your children about the reality behind media images, including the way photographs in magazines are airbrushed and celebrities starve themselves to look ultra-thin.

Know Your Child. Although parents don’t always realize it, children often have impressive insights into their own thoughts, feelings and needs. If you are concerned about a particular issue, ask for your child’s input. Children can’t fully direct their own lives, but listening to their voice will aid in solving problems.

Encourage Strong Friendships. Among young girls, a “mean girl” attitude sometimes dominates. When girls don’t match our culture’s ideals of beauty, they may get bullied and teased, starting as early as elementary school. Project EAT (Eating Among Teens), a long-term study of the factors influencing teen eating habits sponsored by the University of Minnesota, found that weight-related bullying is directly correlated with an increase in extreme dieting measures.

Help your daughter cultivate a sense of camaraderie among her peers and establish trusting, close-knit friendships with other females. These relationship skills will serve her now as well as into adulthood. If bullying is a problem at school, consider finding an alternative educational environment for your child that encourages diversity and acceptance.

Although efforts are underway to change some of the most damaging aspects of the media, harmful messages will likely be part of our culture for a long time. We can’t hide our children from the culture we’ve created, but we can take steps to boost their self-esteem and protect them from the poor self-image and unrealistic expectations that often fuel eating disorders.

Dr. Carolyn Ross is an internationally known physician, author and speaker on addictions, obesity and eating disorders. She serves as a consultant to The Ranch’s eating disorder treatment program in Tennessee, maintains a private practice in Denver, is the author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook: An Integrated Approach to Overcoming Disordered Eating as well as The Joy of Eating Well, and also hosts a weekly radio show, The Vital Life. •