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More than Media

By Shirley Wang--Eating disorders are serious mental disorders affecting approximately 0.3 - 3% of the population. Despite this, several misconceptions and stereotypes about eating disorders often downplay their severity. As advocates for health and recovery, I believe that addressing these misconceptions, and sharing more accurate information, is incredibly important.

Several great strides have already been taken in this direction. For example, previous stereotypes assumed that in general, only white, middle-upper class women suffered from eating disorders. To address this, many groups and organizations have recently made an effort to include people from all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, and other social groups when talking about eating disorders (e.g., the Marginalized Voices project, Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders, Men Get Eating Disorders Too.) These are all movements that I hope will continue to grow!

In this article, I will address a different misconception regarding eating disorders, body image, and the media. Although eating disorders are incredibly complex disorders, they are frequently discussed in a manner that focuses on body image concerns, usually as they relate to influences from the media (e.g., The War on Women’s Bodies, Women Are Dying to be Thin.) Most people who have experience with eating disorders (e.g., clinicians, researchers, individuals in recovery) understand that eating disorders are complex biopsychosocial disorders. Thus, messages like the ones above are great, and serve to point out the danger and toxicity of our thin-obsessed culture.

At the same time, many people do not have experience with eating disorders, and may interpret these messages as suggesting that negative body image and the media are primary causal factors of eating disorders. In this way, when presenting information about body image and the media, it might be helpful to stress that this is not the case. For example, we may consider adding a short statement to body image/media info graphics emphasizing that eating disorders are more complex than negative body image, and that the media doesn’t cause eating disorders.

In fact, current research suggests that a combination of genetic predispositions, personality traits, environmental factors, and psychological factors may all increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Therefore, the media (an environmental factor) may be considered a variable risk factor, but not a cause, for eating disorders (Levine & Murnen, 2009).

Talking about body image and the media as they relate to eating disorders is always tricky, and I believe that we should actively work towards presenting both sides of the coin. While negative body image is definitely a problem worth addressing, it is not an eating disorder. Likewise, although we live in a society that normalizes disordered eating and glorifies thinness, this does not cause eating disorders.

In addition, I believe that it is important to keep an open mind. Acknowledging what we do know, and importantly, what we don’t know, about eating disorders is essential in continuing to learn about them. Perhaps, when talking about eating disorders, body image, and the media, we should all make a greater effort to recognize how truly complicated (and interesting!) it all is. Many organizations are doing wonderful work by spreading awareness and education about eating disorders, and my hope is that we continue working together to learn about and further research risk factors, causes, prevention, treatment, and recovery.  

About this blogger: Shirley Wang is a Proud2BMe Ambassador. She has been working with NEDA/Proud for a few years. She is an undergraduate psychology major/statistics minor, and is planning to pursue a PhD in clinical psych. She is currently interning on an inpatient eating disorders unit, and is involved in research studying disordered eating, body image, and other clinical outcomes associated with rumination and mindfulness.

Also by Shirley:

Why Proud2BMe On Campus Matters

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Losing More than Weight: Humiliation, Extreme Diating, and Unhealthy Exercise on the Biggest Loser 

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Proud2Bme is an online community created by and for teens. We cover everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.

This site was developed in partnership with Riverduinen and made possible by generous contributions from JPMorgan Chase, Globant, the University of Delaware, and The Hilda & Preston Davis Foundation.

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