Term Paper: Media Influence on Eating Disorders and Why Thinness Is so Sought

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Media and Eating Disorders

Media, both electronic and print, tends to clouds one's judgment of reality. This is what cultivation theorists maintained, propagated and argued for. Even though theorists such as George Gerbner, did not include print media when he expounded his cultivation theory, we cannot deny that in today's world, print media has just as profound an impact on our perceptions as electronic media. Both print and electronic media have been criticized 'for depicting thin woman as ideal' (Holmstrom, 2004) and it is widely believed that these unreal images of women feed a female's insecurities about herself and usually have a damaging impact. In this paper, we study how media contributes to the culture of thinness and the role it plays in mounting cases of eating disorder in young women in the context of cultivation theory.

In a media-saturated culture like the one we have in the United States, the influence of media-promoted images on our perception of what is good, healthy, beautiful and desirable has often been discussed and in most cases vehemently criticized. Research indicates that female adolescents are increasingly being subjected to unhealthy body images in print and electronic media resulting in the rise of eating disorders cases. With media presenting us with images of super-thin women who are projected as symbols of success, eating disorders are unarguably on the rise among young women. This is the result of distorted body image or body image disturbance that occurs when people, both men and women, overestimate their body size and harbor chronic thoughts about dieting, weight loss and consumption of fat. Body image distortion leads to unhealthy dietary habits where people start consuming less food with lower nutritional value and as the result suffer from eating disorders including bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

Media promotes a culture of thinness as vast body of literature reveals. Body image has suffered tremendously as the result of proliferation of skinny models on magazine covers, TV commercials, television serials and films. People like Ally McBeal, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Courtney Cox further endorse the culture of thinness and create anxiety among women who are forced to believe that unless they are as thin as these models and actresses, they cannot be considered beautiful or desirable.

Method

For this study, we studied a vast body of literature available on the subject of body image distortion or disturbance, eating disorders and media's influence. Magazines including Playboy, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Marie Claire were carefully utilized to see how they portrayed a female and how they were contributing to body image problems among target readers. These magazines were chosen on the basis on their popularity among young women. Playboy was used as key source since it presents the image of most 'perfect' female and is popular among males whose distorted perception of beauty is also a contributing factor in rising incidents of eating disorder and related health problems. Various journal articles and studies were also utilized to support our claim that media seriously affects body image and causes increase in eating disorder cases.

Results:

Results gathered from individual research and from ample literature show a strong correlation between eating disorders and media images of beauty. This link was more pronounced in the case of girls than boys showing that while boys are also affected, the extent of this influence may differ. Internalization and awareness of social pressures was also found to influence this correlation. The subject was studied with reference to the cultivation theory and works of Gerbner, Gross and Morgan were closely studied to test their hypotheses.

Discussion

Research has consistently demonstrated that media images especially TV commercials and magazines play a dominant role in distortion of body image leading to increased cases of eating disorders among women (Levine, Smolak, & Hayden, 1994). Kalodner (1997) concluded that images of thin models in media generated feelings of anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction among women but not in men. But different results might be obtained if men were shown images of muscular models instead of thin females since culture of thinness affects women more. Body mass index (BMI) was used in many researches to demonstrate that even those women whose BMI indicate good height-weight proportion also suffered from body image disturbance and developed eating disorder (Nelson-Steen, Wadden, Foster, & Anderson, 1996). The research in this area appears to confirm cultivation theorists' assumption that the length of media exposure is directly correlated to the impact it has on perception. "Those who believe cultivation theory offers an explanation of the relationship between media and body image posit that thin images in the media lead people to believe the thin form is both realistic and ideal. If people do adopt the thin media ideal, researchers would expect a connection in survey research between length of media exposure and endorsement of the most prevalent body type portrayed by the media, the thin woman." (Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson, & Kelly, 1986 cited in Holmstrom, 2004)

Old and new issues of popular magazines were carefully studied to assess the impact on models on body image problems among young women. In this connection, the classic investigative work of Garner, Garfinkel, Schwartz, and Thompson (1980) was also utilized. Their research showed that over the twenty-year period from 1959-1978, body measurements of centerfolds models had changed consistently. The measurements indicated smaller waistlines as height of models increased. Similarly it was also found that in other popular magazines including Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, McCalls, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and Woman's Day, number of diet articles and workout plans increased considerably over the two decades. Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, and Ahrens (1992) research that monitored the size of models in Playboy magazine during relatively recent period indicates that over the 10-year period (1979-1988), bust and hip measurement showed consistent reduction and the weight of these women was 13-19% lower than normal weight. Harrison (2000) found that consistent and increased exposure to images of thin models in magazines led to eating disorder symptoms. Morry & Staska (2001) also support this finding as they argue that magazine images "lead to dissatisfaction with one's own body and disordered eating behaviours as women and men try to attain these ideals."

In a highly and by far the most methodologically sound study, Stice et al. (1994) utilized structural approach where impact of both television and print media exposure on eating disorder symptoms was assessed. It was found that programs in all three categories (comedy, game shows, and dramas) and magazine articles on entertainment or arts, health or fitness, and fashion or beauty could cause anxiety and lead to weight loss behavior among young women.

Recent research has however focused on internalization of media images too. While exposure is seen as a contributing factor, it has been argued that internalization of media-promoted images may have an even more pronounced impact on body image. Young people who are more aware of existing socio-cultural pressures are less affected by media exposure than others.

Thompson, and Stormer (1995) developed the Sociocultual Attitudes Towards Appearance Questionnaire (SATAQ), which is now being utilized in many related researches. This questionnaire assesses a person's awareness of socio-cultural demand and internalization of these social standards. Heinberg and Thompson (1995) utilized this test in their research. A 10-min video of 'appearance-related images' or 'nonappearance-related images' was shown to participants. It was found that women who scored high on SATAQ were less emotionally affected by 'appearance-related images' than those who scored low on the test. In another study by Stice, Shaw et al. (1994) the results "...support the hypothesis that internalization of socio-cultural pressures mediates the relation between media exposure and eating pathology"

The cultivation theory doesn't take internalization into account. Length of exposure has been assigned greater significance in cultivation studies. Gross and Gerbner and other cultivation theorists pointed out that length of exposure is a crucial factor in determining the magnitude of impact. They argued that heavy media users are more negatively affected by media perceptions of beauty than light users. Television is a powerful medium that significantly affect perception of what is real and normal. While Gerbner and Gross were mainly concerned with violence of television (Gerbner & (Gross, 1976; Gerbner et al., 1980) and argued that those who watch four to five hours of television each day are more susceptible to distortion of reality, their theories can easily be applied to other areas of television viewing since they maintained that television provides "steady stream of mediated reality" (Gerbner & Gross).

It is now widely accepted that television and magazines play important role in creating the problem of body dissatisfaction among young girls which also leads to eating disorders and depression (Dittrich, 2001, Pipher, 1995). The media is criticized for presenting false and often unattainable ideals of beauty that young girls pursue aggressively disregarding the flaws in such glorified version of beauty. This is because their perception of what is 'real' is altered significantly with heavy television viewing or magazine reading. Dittrich (1998) finds that 69% of women shown on TV are thin… [END OF PREVIEW]

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