Friday, March 05, 2010

The U.K. tackles body image issues

Kudos to the Royal College of Psychiatrists across the pond for taking on the thorny issue of media and body image in a powerful way.

The U.K. group just issued a statement admonishing the media for their damaging portrayal of eating disorders. That's good, and it goes along with similar statements made recently by several U. S. groups. Raising awareness on both sides of the pond--excellent work.

The RCC's gone a step further, though, calling for a "new editorial code" that would end the promotion of the unattainable thin ideal in the media. This is a bold step, and I'm going to be following developments closely on this subject.

The RCC identified three main areas of concern (and I'm quoting here from its press release, as you can no doubt tell from the Anglicized spelling):

Visual imagery: Preteen or underweight models are used by the media and advertising companies to promote a thin body ideal, and airbrushing and digital enhancement is widely used to portray physical perfection that is unattainable in real life.

Unbalanced articles : Many magazine articles give advice on dieting without giving information about the long-term effectiveness of diets and the dangers of extreme dieting. ‘Body critical’ articles also target celebrities for being overweight, underweight or physically imperfect, which normalises body criticism and can make people dissatisfied with their own bodies.

Inaccurate portrayal of eating disorders: Many articles ‘glamorise’ weight loss and portray eating disorders as mild disorders or personal weaknesses, rather than serious mental illnesses requiring specialist treatment.

I'm expecting cries of First Amendment foul on this side of the pond. It raises an interesting dilemma for me, as both a magazine journalist (and professor of magazine journalism) and an eating disorders advocate. Is censorship ever a good idea? How about self-censorship, which I think is what the British shrinks are suggesting?

My journalism colleagues will no doubt want to throw me off the island for saying this, but I'm all for some kind of self-censorship in this case. No journalistic standards will be violated if, for instance, magazines ran images of beautiful 20-year-old American models instead of emaciated Russian preteens with preternaturally pouty lips. In fact, I could argue that in the best possible tradition of journalism, magazines have a responsibility to tell both sides of the story: Instead of blaring the trumpets of weight loss at any cost, how about stories that encourage women to accept and love themselves as they are? I'm not even gonna mention the kind of cognitive dissonance that comes from Photoshopping the hell out of Kelly Clarkson on the cover and then running a feature quoting her as saying she loves her body the way it is and doesn't feel the need to diet herself into oblivion. I'm not even going to mention the magazine that did this (cough, rhymes with elf).

When I pitched a story on self-acceptance and body image recently to a magazine that shall not be named (cough, rhymes with wealth), I was told by my editor, rather sadly, that it would never fly.

Maybe when pigs grow wings.

**Thanks to one of my students, Courtney Egleston, for posting this story originally on the Newhouse magazine feed.


Cathy (UK) said...

Is there really any hard evidence to suggest that these images actually CAUSE eating disorders? Try as I might I have been unable to find any research evidence whatsoever of a cause-effect relationship between media images and EDs.

I am aware that some girls/women with already established EDs find these images 'triggering', but it is well known that people with EDs are drawn to environmental cues that 'feed' their illness. Also, Anne Becker's research 8-9 yrs ago showed that the introduction of TV in Fiji led to increased dieting behaviours and disordered eating in teen girls. However, dieting behaviours rarely lead to clinical EDs. Repeated viewing of media images of thin women can lead to body dissatisfaction in some girls and women, but body dissatisfaction is not a clear-cut cause of eating disorders.

Am I the only person who thinks that the repeated suggestions that images of thin women actually cause eating disorders are unfounded? Try as I might, I can only find research evidence that speculates on the dangers of media images - and no definitive research evidence whatsoever. I cannot help but wonder whether these images are just 'red herrings' in the fight to tackle EDs ...

Moreover, if so many women find these images distressing to their self-esteem they should just stop looking at them!

BTW, I write this as a woman who had a very long history of severe anorexia nervosa.

Harriet said...

Hi Cathy,

Thanks for your thoughtful post. There is NO evidence to suggest that media images of "thinness" cause eating disorders. I should have made that clearer. Eating disorders are multifactorial diseases, and we really don't understand all the causes yet. I think I can say with confidence that they are largely heritable, that genetics and temperament play a role, and that biology is very important in terms of who develops an ED and who doesn't.

That said, I do think it's important to raise the issue for a couple of reasons.

One, these images are triggering for people with an ED. And while you can't ever avoid all triggers, I think we now live in a culture where we're literally surrounded by triggers in the form of these images. I wonder what this will do over the long term to rates of EDs.

Two, besides genetics, the other major risk factor for developing an ED is dieting. More than 90 percent of teenage girls now diet. Most do not develop EDs, of course. But those who are vulnerable genetically and biologically will often find that dieting starts the long slide into a full-blown clinical ED. And one reason young girls diet is because they're surrounded by these images of the unattainable thin ideal. So in that sense I think media imagery plays a role.

Three, for the majority of women who do not develop an ED, these images still trigger or contribute to feelings of self-loathing, low self-esteem, and often trigger long-term disordered eating, which is nowhere near as devastating as EDs but still something no one should really have to deal with.

That's my thinking, anyway.

Cathy (UK) said...

Thanks for the prompt response Harriet. Yes, I agree about the inherent risks - and about dieting in some cases. However, not all EDs start with dieting, and not all EDs occur in the context of body dissatisfaction/body image disturbance.

Some EDs start with over-exercising when training for a sport, to 'get fit', or when exercising to relieve anxiety or depression that are unrelated to body dissatisfaction. Furthermore, some EDs are triggered by sexual abuse or bullying. I know quite a number of women who started to restrict food when struggling with PTSD following rape or incest.

Harriet said...

Agreed--that's where the "multifactorial" piece comes in.

Whatever the initial trigger is, it seems clear that those who are vulnerable pass a point of no return somewhere along the line. I think of it as falling down the rabbit hole (but then I'm a fan of Alice in Wonderland). And then you're dealing with a full-blown ED.

Cathy (UK) said...

Yes, I agree about the 'point of no return'. That happened to me when I was 12 yrs old, in 1978 (when, incidentally, there was no media obsession with skinny models/celebrities, and I had never heard of 'anorexia nervosa'). Interestingly, the prevalence of anorexia nervosa was no greater in 1978 than it is now - <1% of the teen population.

As anyone who has had anorexia nervosa knows (and similarly their families), anorexia nervosa is a horrendous mental illness. The fact that it has more recently become linked to 'pop culture' trivialises anorexia nervosa to some fashionable culturable whim. The fact that some psychiatrists have 'jumped on the band-wagon' in support of this 'pop-culture' image of eating disorders is even more disheartening.

Anonymous said...

Cathy, while I agree with you that, sometimes, it may be unhelpful to add to the broad misconception that eating disorders are 'caused' by fashion-driven images and some sort of 'whim', we cannot easily deny that these media images and messages are promoting a culture of dissatisfaction with and easy criticism of body shape, size and look amongst young people that CAN be triggering of diagnosable, statistics generating, eating disorders for some (with the requisite genetic predisposition) in the behaviours it may set up in the pursuit of the 'perfection' they are looking to attain as a result of being surrounded with them, and can also lead to lifelong unhappiness, disordered eating and body dissatisfaction for others (who may never develop an eating disorder); forms of mental distress that may also lead to ill health of one sort or another (mental and\or physical).

I feel that you are in danger yourself of trivialising the work of some valuable people when you make assertions that highly intelligent, caring, thoughtful, informed, experienced, medically qualified practioners in the field are simply jumping on bandwagons in support of pop culture if it is because what they are saying in this particular context does not fit with your own views or experiences. We lack research in many areas of eating disorders - these are the people who identify those areas and take the time and trouble to get that research underway; all research starts with identifying areas where it would be most effective; it does take time and funding and experience. This is a short press statement that Harriet has directed us to and it covers more than media images and potential causal links to eating disorders; I also don't doubt that there will be a great deal more underlying it and I am very happy to see it and support it - it is about time someone addressed in a meaningful way some of the 'sickness' and sensationalism currently pervading our media and infecting our children.