be Thin: Interrogating Media's Relationship to Eating Disorders
through Audience Research
This paper uses a
discourse analytic approach to explore the complexity of meanings
women attach to media effects in relation to eating disorders. It
is based on semi- structured interviews with seven women, who
identify as having varying types of eating problems. The women
were asked to discuss their experiences of eating problems and
media messages. This analysis explores the complexity of meanings
that the women articulated, as there is no single discourse drawn
upon to explain eating problems in relation to media effects.
Wider implications for understandings of eating disorders are also
Key words: media,
audience research, eating disorders, discourse analysis
Despite reports of
unusual food practices throughout history (Brumberg, 1988) it is claimed (Pawluck & Gorey, 1998) that incidents of eating disorders
are steadily increasing in contemporary societies. The first
suggestion of an increase was in 1939, by the British physician
John Ryle. He attributed the increase largely to the current
fashion for a slender figure (Vandereycken & Deth, 1993). It is significant in the discursive
construction of eating disorders that along with these initial
claims for increased prevalence, the first explicit connection
between media and eating disorders was proposed.
various orientations have examined linkages between media messages
and eating disorders. Feminist philosopher Bordo (1993) explores “the complex intersections and
crystallizations of culture that are present in the phenomena of
eating disorders” (as discussed in Way, 1995). Work of a more clinical orientation (Garner &
Garfinkel, 1982) emphasizes the multi-dimensional nature of
media effects. Both Garner & Garfinkel (1980) and Wolf (1991) have pinpointed the increase of diet articles
in the mass media.
these attempts to understand the specific nature of media effects
and viewers’ engagement with such messages, the notion that eating
disorders are rooted in an idealization of feminine beauty, most
visible through the media, has persisted and is articulated in
multiple popular forums. Probyn (cited in Kroker, 1987: 207) summarizes the argument, “many of the popular
images of anorexia center on establishing chains or links between
the anorexic and paper thin representations of women”.
A brief history of the development of discourses
surrounding eating disorders is useful; primarily to place in
context the contemporary claim that media are a significant factor
in eating disorders.
Discourses can be understood as “limited sets of
statements which establish the conditions for the truth on which
it arbitrates and makes statements” (Danaher, Schirato, & Webb,
2000: 34). Medical discourse, for example, refers to
various writings on eating disorders (psychiatry, pediatrics,
psychology and dietetics). Medical research, like many other
fields, is continually evolving, knowledge is discontinuous, and
the pioneering work on anorexia is still relevant today (Madden,
As this summary
illustrates, there are incidents of food refusal and unusual food
practices through history, long before there was the technology,
status and wide circulation that media has today. In Brumberg’s
is one of a long line of women and girls who have used control of
appetite, food and the body as the focus of their symbolic
language. A historical perspective shows that anorexia nervosa
existed long before there was a mass cultural preoccupation with
dieting and a slim female body (Brumberg, 1988: 2-3).
Food is used as an
expression of various conflicts, which differ culturally and
historically. Here, I briefly discuss two of the subtypes of
eating disorders, and provide some thoughts on the claims for
description of anorexia begins with the statement that its Latin
name (meaning nervous loss of appetite) is a misnomer. The
earliest account of anorexia is a 1689 report by Thomas Morton, an
English doctor. Morton discusses two case studies, one female and
the other male, who were suffering from a ‘wasting disease’
(Gordon, 2000). At the time, Morton’s work was not widely
acknowledged. Doctors of this period still made reference to God
for explanations of what they believed were supernatural cases,
and self-starvation was linked to sainthood (see Brumberg 1988). A
slightly later explanation came from Chipley, (1810-1880)
suggesting that women fasted for attention, the popular 19th
century explanation for anorexia (Brumberg, 1988; Vandereycken &
Deth, 1993). This theory still exists today; for example,
one of the better-known autobiographies of anorexia (Boone
O'Neill, 1992) is titled Starving for Attention. In
1873, two leading physicians almost simultaneously published
accounts of the illness. Gull was an English doctor, a consultant
of the Queen. The other practitioner, Lasegue, was French, and his
report was the more influential.
descriptions of Gull and Lasegue differed enormously in emphasis.
Gull’s report was primarily medical, focusing on how the physician
came to conclude that the condition involved ‘simple starvation,’
and no organic cause. Lasegue’s commentary was psychological,
outlining the mental stages through which patient and family
passed in the course of the disease (Brumberg, 1988: 119).
However, both saw
adolescent girls as a vulnerable population, and Gull found
similarities between anorexia and hysteria. With the publication
and recognition of these two reports the transformation from
saints to patients was completed (Brumberg, 1988) and the first of many debates over cause and
treatment of anorexia.
Bulimia nervosa is
the name given by British researcher Gerald Russell in 1979 (Wooley
& Wooley, 1982) for what was seen as a new type of eating
disorder. The term first appeared in the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Eating Disorders (DSM IV) in 1980 (Striegel-Moore
& Smolak, 2001, p.271). However, Ziolko (1996) traces the disorder back to the 4th century BC,
although some of his descriptions bear little resemblance to
bulimia as it is recognized today. Some suggest bulimia may have
origins in Roman customs, but claims are inconclusive.
that Roman women dieted to preserve their figures, and used a
vomitorium, (a room adjunct to the banqueting room where people
could go and vomit) although presumably its purpose was to let
guests relieve their full stomachs so they could continue
banqueting rather than control their figures (Pollock Seid, 1989:
Ziolko (1996) discusses Roman physicians theories of
bulimos (as it was termed), and suggests it was a
“hunger or the desire for nourishment, or even an
extraordinary desire to eat” (Ziolko, 1996: 347). In 1772, Cullen, an English practitioner,
diagnosed bulimia as an independent disorder. He distinguished
between seven forms of bulimia. One hundred and fifty years later,
bulimia was redefined:
The elementary urge
to eat continued to be the key, as was the greedy devouring of
food without the feeling of satiety. Vomiting was occasionally
mentioned. In most cases weight gain ensued, but in individual
cases emaciation occurred despite the ingestion of large amounts
of food (Ziolko, 1996: 352).
Ziolko notes that
from 1920 on, a large number of cases studies were published in
which the symptoms of bulimia are evident. He concludes his
article by commenting; “there are multiple changes which the
concept of bulimia has undergone and multiple manifestations
presented in the course of its history. These changes justify
neither a ‘new disorder’ nor, as a consequence, an additional name
of the disorder” (Ziolko, 1996: 356).
are popularly perceived to be modern maladies, despite Morton’s
diagnosis in 1689. There are several factors that appear to
contribute to perceptions of a rise in eating disorders. Increased
medical awareness is an obvious reason. “In the 1970s anorexia was
described in psychiatric publications as the ‘psychiatric disorder
of the 1980s,’ suggesting that diseases, particularly psychiatric
disorders can become fashionable, and this was the case for
anorexia” (Gordon, 2000: 2). Another basis for the increase is the
association of eating disorders with high profile or celebrity
figures, such as Karen Carpenter and Princess Diana. Media
publications have also played a complex role in increased public
awareness of such medical problems, although largely through the
proliferation of autobiographical accounts, women’s magazines,
talk shows and documentaries, all of which are particularly aimed
at female audiences.
medical and feminist discourses on the media, which permeate
popular notions, are briefly outlined here. Feminist writers (Chernin,
1981; Orbach 1993; Wolf, 1991) hold that eating disorders are increasing in
contemporary society. This suggestion directly supports their
wider social political thesis as most of the factors seen as
responsible for an increase are relatively modern developments,
such as the rise in women’s participation in traditionally male
careers and the increasing prevalence of global media within
everyday practices. Both Wolf (1991) and Chernin (1981) advocate the ‘backlash’ theory, which suggests
that as women gain greater legal and professional power, there is
an increasing societal emphasis on women’s weight.
Young girls and
women are seriously weakened by inheriting the general fallout of
two decades of the beauty myth backlash. But other factors
compound these pressures on young women so intensely that the
surprise is not how many have eating disorders, but how many do
not (Wolf, 1991 cited in Fallon, Katzman, & Wooley, 1994: 107).
There is more recent
work that acknowledges the multiple and creative ways that women
engage with media and the social world, such as Bordo (1993). Bordo discusses the complexities of resistance
to societal beauty norms, suggesting that while women are not
cultural dupes and do not unquestionably follow cultural messages,
“they are all conscious of the systems of values and rewards that
they are responding to and perpetuating”. Bordo considers the ways
in which various advertisements aimed at woman play with the
notion of choice, through their provocative words, yet clearly
reinforce the appropriate option (Bordo, 1993: 198).
medical discourse for the purpose of this paper, I focus
specifically on arguments related to the media. Clinicians
consider various ways in which media messages are communicated and
influence sufferers. Garner & Garfinkel (1982: 106) write that “media have capitalized upon and
promoted this image and through popular programming have portrayed
the successful and beautiful protagonists as thin. Thinness has
thus become associated with self control and success”. Garner &
Garfinkel (1982) emphasize the multidimensional nature of
anorexia. Cultural pressures include contemporary attitudes to
thinness, the association between thinness and control, the
persuasiveness in dieting and increasing numbers of diet articles
in the media, coupled with evidence that women are getting larger.
Along with social pressures, Garner, drawing on the work of Bruch
(1973), also considers “deficits within the individual
and her capacity for autonomy” (Garner & Garfinkel, 1982: 118).
perspective provides a contrast to or is an additional factor in
genetic arguments (Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 2001). Waller & Shaw (1994) propose three explanatory theories drawn from
social psychology: social identity theory (thinness is socially
acceptable therefore women desire this body type), social learning
theory (an ideal body type is presented as role model and social
comparison (anxiety is experienced by those whose bodies do not
match media ideals).
discuss media influence with patients, perhaps asking them to keep
an atrocity file (Gordon, 2000; Pipher, 1997). This involves the patient finding problematic
media images, and bringing them along to discuss in the therapy
session. “Through discussion with the therapist of the unrealistic
standards promoted by commercial culture, the patient can
potentially develop a more realistic body concept and an awareness
of the distorted standards that she has internalized” (Gordon,
focus of the study
We are in a
media-motivated society…the majority of adolescents I speak to
look at [size 4-6] as normal, when in fact the average adolescent
is a [size 12]. There is a study which shows young girls are more
frightened of being fat that they are of a nuclear holocaust or
their parents dying. That’s scary (Wulff, 2004).
contain such discourses (Bishop, 2001). An article about the Olsen twins in the
Daily Telegraph (Cross, 2004) reports: “the ‘tween’ star’s illness
follows weeks of speculation about the twins skinny appearance…”
NW (The editor, 2003) describes Lara Flynn Boyle as “yet another
celeb with any eating disorder”. Contemporary celebrities are
constructed as inevitably prone to anorexia by the immense public
focus on their weight. Cleo (Holly, 2003) presents Holly Valance as “Not engaged, not
anorexic”, holding her up as a role model for young girls. Again
in a story about Mary Kate, Who (Wulff, 2004) reported that a seventeen year old girl
had “cut out pictures of Mary Kate at her skinniest, and pasted
them in my journal because that is what I am striving to look
like”. The author continues, “Surrounded by images of young
celebrities who are painfully thin…girls growing up today can feel
immense pressure to have the same figure. Some fall prey to eating
disorders…” In an article on teenage girls in Argentina, who are
“undergoing plastic surgery and anorexia in pursuit of lucrative
modeling contracts…Argentineans weight obsession is attributed to
the media and the underlying message that thin is glamorous” (Schrieberg,
Magazines are riddled
with complexities, including recipes for calorie rich food placed
next to an article on diet tips (Bordo, 1993). Another conflicting image is that of the
super-mum; the woman who can succeed professionally, maintain the
home and care for her family, and be physically attractive (Bordo,
1993; Levine, 1994; Wolf, 1991). Elite sportswomen are often presented in
magazines this way (Crooks, 2004), as the media has an important role in framing
what constitutes appropriate behavior. Media suggests women can be
anything they desire- as long as they are thin. Examples include
Angelina Jolie in Tomb-raider or Demi Moore in GI Jane.
Where there is discursive tension in the relationship between
beauty and freedom, this is written out of the script.
A source of concern for professionals
(and others) has emerged in the form of pro- anorexia websites,
which are also featured in women’s magazines. Meehan, founder of
states that the sites “reinforce the anorexics’ belief that what
she is doing isn’t dangerous” (Dixon, 2001). The websites include diaries and poems from
sufferers, diet tips and ‘doctored’ photos of celebrities “to
encourage women to develop eating disorders” (Mitchell, 2001: 16). Other commentators are more cynical about the
effects of these sites. (Probyn, 2001) writes; “[t]he horrifically sublime combination
of desire, power and destruction that is anorexia has been with us
a long time”.
It is important to
examine this blaming of popular media, as although some media
certainly portray an unrealistic image of women, the relationship
is not simply cause and effect, but multi-factorial, as various
authors have stated. However, the notion that the media is to
blame for eating disorders (the promotion of thin as beautiful
messages) continues to exist in popular forums. Such a discourse
is problematic, as it positions eating problems as superficial.
Media blaming ignores a variety of other factors, such as sexual
abuse or trauma, which people have linked to their eating problems
(see Thompson, 1994).
conducted by Cusumano & Thompson, 1999, Garner & Garfinkel, 1982,
and Murray, Touyz, & Beumont, 1996, there has been little qualitative research
into how sufferers position such notions, or their feelings about
media’s presentation of eating disorders. In examining the
arguments generated by various scholars, semi-structured interview
questions were devised, covering the following areas: awareness of
the arguments about media influence on eating disorders, media’s
impact on own experience, and sites where such arguments were
This contribution attempts to examine people’s awareness of these
discourses, and how they position such notions in relation to
their own experience. Like any researcher, I had my own views on
the role of the media, particularly media’s depictions of eating
disorders, seeing such representations as sanitizing the illness.
I also see media blaming arguments as wholly simplistic. Despite
my own thoughts on media’s role in eating disorders, or the
presentation of eating disorders in the media, in doing the
interviews, I did not base my questions on any models (as
developed by researchers) of media audiences. I was interested in
participants’ views and experiences, and did not want to lead
structured interviews were carried out with seven women, aged
twenty to forty six, who identified as having an eating problem.
Participants were recruited through snowballing (word of mouth)
and advertisements placed in treatment centers. Interviews were
transcribed verbatim, and pseudonyms were used to protect the
Status at interview
Psychiatric treatment &
Anorexia & Bulimia
Psychiatric treatment &
approach taken in this study is informed by writers such as (Ang,
1996) who, working in a post structural framework,
positions audiences as negotiating and locating themselves within
competing social discourses. Different factors, including age,
social class, gender and access to education influence how
audiences respond to media, and position it in relation to
themselves. Audiences are active in producing meaning from media.
Ang (1996: 13) suggests, “audiences have to be active in order
to produce any meaning at all out of the overdose of images thrown
at us.” However, it is important to acknowledge that there are
always constraints surrounding around audiences that may influence
their interpretations. These include the specific discourses that
shape a program, other viewers’ reactions and their notions of
themselves as an audience.
The current study
uses a discourse analytical approach to analyze the interview
texts. The field of discourse analysis is vast, and there is not
the space to discuss it fully here. Instead, I will provide a
brief synopsis as relates to this paper. The form of analysis I
employ has a wider application than to written material: “I shall
use the term discourse to refer to the whole process of
social interaction, of which text is just a part” (Titscher, 2000:
147). This type of discourse analysis assumes social effects are
reproduced in language, and traces their historical structure. It
is concerned with power, knowledge and discourse and sees the
three as interconnected (Malson, 1998; Walkerdine, 1989).
The work of Michel
Foucault has been immensely influential in this field of discourse
analysis, as Foucault directs attention to analyzing the
discourses of a specific historical period, and examines their
operations. Foucault’s work on power relations is important, as
Foucauldian conceptions of power shift from liberal notions of
power as coercive. Rather, power is something humans depend on for
their existence; it is local, specific and essential in the
creation of subjectivity. Subjectivity is developed through power
relations between individuals and groups.
I have selected
from the interview transcripts
those extracts that I see as the distinctive parts of each woman’s
interview, in terms of notions about the media that appeared most
important in their narratives. These were then shaped into themes
across all transcripts. Each of the discourses deals with
specific aspects of the way in which the media appeared within
participants’ stories. In analyzing the transcripts, again, I did
not draw on previous models, as the focus of the study was how
participants position themselves in relation to media messages, as
a factor in their experience and media’s portrayal of eating
disorders. I will use different interviewees and specific quotes
to cover different aspects of the complex set of ideas within each
of these themes. The statements (taken from transcripts) that
precede each discussion are intended to represent a range of the
discourses that the women articulated in the interviews.
This paper presents
five different discourses that the women drew upon in discussing
the media’s role. These are; media’s causal role in eating
disorders, different media texts, perceptions of audiences,
individual versus media, and therapy in relation to media.
role in eating disorders.
discussed the role of the media in relation to other factors in
the development and maintenance of their eating disorder. ‘The
media’ is not a coherent whole, and different participants
position individual texts in various ways.
DONNA: I have
noticed more recently that advertising for food triggers processes
of obsessive thinking around particular foods, which I inevitably
succumb to ~bingeing on film and television stars whose bodies I
envy, even at this age, (thirty-two). I watch particular shows as
I am fascinated by female stars who are so other to me
Driver and Nicole Kidman are about the same height as me, a little
shorter, and when I read something about them I always go looking
for their weight, as I always want to see how much heavier I am
REBECCA: umm, to a
certain extent, maybe 5% of the reason can be the media
constructed the media’s role in a number of ways. Donna equated
her eating problems with a lack of control around food. She
constructed herself as helpless in relation to her illness, and
addicted to eating. This addiction is construed as a combination
of her weak will and the power of advertising messages. In the
first quote above, Donna is aligning herself with the feminist
position, similar to Bordo (1993: 130) who suggests that food ads offer “a virtual
blueprint for disordered relations to food”.
Implicit in the
second quotation from Donna is a construction of childhood, of
living in a fantasy world. Donna suggests this fantasy can become
dangerous, that it may progress to an obsession with the ‘other,’
and women will ultimately become dissatisfied as they fall short
of the fantastic perfection of these stars. In the majority of the
interviewees’ accounts, these ‘trashy’ texts (magazines, films and
television) are simply reduced to vehicles for the display of
bodies, yet there is discursive tension here, as these ‘other’
figures may represent who the women desire to be.
Amanda suggests she
was ‘active’ in her interaction with media, as she ‘goes looking’
for the actresses weights, as if she is deliberately trying to
feed her eating problems. Rebecca was the only interviewee to
actually quantify media as a factor in the development of eating
disorders. When talking about other factors in more depth, Rebecca
explicitly reduces media influence almost to the level of
irrelevance. These statements suggest some diversity of response
to media within this group of participants.
examined particular media texts and their portrayal of eating
disorders. Participants suggested some variation in how different
texts presented eating problems.
HANNAH: I don’t
know if it still has the same effect on me, I don’t diet or
anything but I can still look at a documentary on anorexia or
articles on anorexia or look at magazines, that makes me want to
lose weight, because they look so skinny
NICOLE: a movie
about anorexia, and it was about a girl who was slowly dying and
basically she was just a beautiful corpse, that was it,
aye...someone needs to interview someone straight after they’ve
~I never buy
Women’s Weekly, or anything like that, I only buy magazines
that will inform me about something, and I’ve gotten over this
thing, you know, so I’m not going to be tempted by any false
AMANDA: I would say
that magazines would predominantly be the worst, generally because
fashion magazines are like, you know…films are tricky because
there’s not many movies that deal with a lead character having an
eating disorder, and umm, I feel like a lot of time lead
characters tend to look like they are anorexic, but no, they’re
were seen as either ‘better’ or ‘more damaging’ than others. Both
Hannah and Nicole are referring to texts designed to educate about
eating disorders, but their responses are very different. Hannah
positions herself here as a passive victim of any media, unable to
escape its influence despite her new feminist knowledge. She
suggests she is an addict, who needs to steer clear of the
influence that might cause her to fall back into dangerous habits
(dieting). That people use materials designed to educate about
eating disorders to support or learn ‘new’ anorexic behaviors is a
source of concern for professionals. One of the most famous
biographies of anorexia, the author, Liu (1979) details the weight loss and starvation habits
of three of her friends, and the competition that ensued between
them (also discussed in Gordon (2000)). This is seen as a major problematic of social
relationships that is further pronounced in hospital settings.
Nicole doesn’t link
these texts with the glamorization of thin models, but suggests
anorexia is depicted as a tragic mystery that befalls the young
and beautiful. The media sanitize anorexia, and present it in a
way that is visually appealing. Any physical complications are
ignored, with media texts instead portraying anorexia as a ‘golden
girls disease,’ simply the result of dieting taken a little too
Both Amanda and
Nicole differentiated between different kinds of texts. Amanda’s
use of ‘you know,’ implies a common sense assumption about
magazines, that their effects are so well known it doesn’t require
elaboration in the interview context. Amanda suggests it isn’t
necessary to actively take in and interpret these images, as the
message is so blatant. She finds music videos ‘even more damaging’
than magazines, as they are extremely visual and the lyrics
reinforce social stereotypes. Here women are objectified, and
reduced to sexualized commodities (to sell music). Implicit in
Nicole’s construction (the second quote) is the favoring of more
‘intelligent’ media. Nicole deliberately avoids popular magazines,
as she is aware of the effect these will have on her. She
intentionally chooses ‘real’ material, as opposed to ‘false’
pictures that ‘tempt’ and have destructive effects on women.
Nicole separates anorexia from herself (through labeling ‘it’ a
thing) and insists she will no longer allow ‘it’ to hurt her,
instead escaping from the ‘illness’ through choosing intelligent
media. Similarly, (elsewhere in her discussion) Amanda suggested
books were ‘better media,’ able to depict eating problems
realistically, primarily because they aren’t a visual medium.
The women discussed
themselves and others as particular types of audiences. In doing
so, they constructed individuals as having certain
characteristics, as responses to media depended upon specific
features, including personality.
with my kids, with my younger one, she’s much more into body
beautiful stuff and changing her hair color every two minutes and
only having clothes that are fashionable and with her I’ve
thought, mmm, well, she’s a potential candidate
(therapeutic) program has made me look at the media differently,
definitely in the case of magazines, their power has gone
~I didn’t have a
TV, magazines as a child, ah, we had a lot of health food at home,
it was more about control really
of viewers emerged within participants discourses; younger females
as more vulnerable, a stronger force acting on the individual to
counter media influence, and notions of a more elite audience.
Here, Carly sees her daughter as a possible candidate for an
eating disorder, as she is a particular type of young woman, who
is concerned with fashion and physical appearance. Therefore she
is vulnerable and easily influenced by social messages. Within the
interview context she appears to accept the media blaming
discourse as common sense, without bothering to examine the idea
further. Nancy sees the media as having a powerful influence on
her perceptions of herself; however, therapy is constructed as a
higher power, providing her with the ability to surpass the
negative influence of media messages. This stance illustrates that
“even in this relatively secular society, there are alternatives
to medical or psychological authorities in dealing with
bulimia…Individuals are constructed as powerless to resolve the
problems alone” (Brooks, Le-Couteur, & Hepworth, 1997: 190). Nicole (in the section on texts) positioned
herself as a more empowered viewer, possibly due to her university
studies. Nancy’s experience is a marked contrast. She states that
her childhood home was relatively free of media. As a result she
is inclined to be both more critical and more aware of media, but
still does not take the opportunity to link it specifically to her
The women suggested
they possessed particular characteristics and bodily attributes
that variously rendered them vulnerable to or gave them the
ability to critically read media. Some of the participants had
also attended university, which provided them with new knowledge
to critique media and other social practices.
DONNA: I have
always been aware that I don’t fit with what’s accepted, that I am
grotesque. I remember from about age eleven or so getting Dolly
magazine, trying diets, going through periods of starvation,
using pictures from magazines as motivation. I had a notebook at
about age twelve which I divided up into chapters, detailing each
part of my body and what was wrong with it, and how I could fix
it, in which I copied tips from magazines and stuck in pictures
HANNAH: I wrote an
essay once, statistically speaking it seems not to be the media
per se that causes anorexia but the media that makes girls and
whatever dissatisfied with their bodies and hate their bodies, and
heaps of people even if they don’t have eating disorder don’t like
their bodies and want to lose weight
~Just a lot of
stuff we learnt in that paper didn’t occur to me ever
NICOLE: I think
anorexia is, a lot about women not being able to say no, I don’t
mean just about sex I mean about everything
NANCY: yeah, I’ve
had that tradition of not being able to accept yourself, whether
it’s the media or whatever, and always trying to find something
that would fix you
could be relevant to this theme, as some participants were
recruited from universities, and are likely to have encountered
feminist discourse to some extent. Particularly Hannah, but also
Nicole and Donna saw their feminist learning as empowering,
providing a platform to critique media more effectively. There is
an extensive amount of feminist writing on eating disorders, and
due to the popularity of these arguments, it is perhaps inevitable
that interviewees should draw on such ideas to explain their
In the extract
above, Donna recounts her addiction to the media, and her feelings
of inadequacy for not measuring up to the promoted beauty norms.
She describes her systematic attempt to control her hated body.
Thin is associated directly with its promotion through media
messages, although her (empowered) adult self is unsatisfied with
the thin simplistic approach she had as a child. Media is
constructed as a dangerous friend, as it is both easily accessible
and provides a possible means for Donna to ‘correct’ herself. In
comparison, Hannah quotes statistics to validate her argument,
suggesting there is a scientific basis to developing a model of
media influence. Hannah draws on a common feminist complaint (Bordo,
1993; Lelwica, 1999) in her discussion of sub clinical forms of
disordered eating, which, although not life threatening, are still
as damaging to women’s quality of life. Much of Hannah’s
discussion is framed by university learning, perhaps typified in
the (above) quotation, ‘a lot of that stuff never occurred to me.’
She is now aware of a potential damaging effect in both a personal
and political sense. Nicole, on the other hand, states elsewhere
that she is confused about feminist theory, but still links
anorexia to the repression of the female voice. Her anorexia could
be read as partly a political protest, where the body is left as
the most effective means of expression for a woman.
The idea of ‘not
being able to accept yourself, not being good enough’ (in terms of
physical appearance) was a feature of Hannah, Amanda, Nancy’s and
conversations. Researchers Lawrence (1984); Garner and Garfinkel (1982); and Lelwica
(1999) suggest women are socialized to perceive
themselves in this way, and to seek solutions through media, both
in visual terms and more blatant examples, such diet tips.
relation to media influence
discourses are relevant in shaping individual constructions of
eating disorders. Participants may position their accounts in a
medical frame, taking up the therapists’ language. The final
discourse presented here considers the ways in which participants
positioned themselves and the media in relation to such
HANNAH: it’s the us
(client) and them (therapist) thing because I suppose it’s the
life experiences and they haven’t had that
AMANDA: the only
reason I’m not buying those magazines is that I’ve been in
counseling for five years, and I know I have to resist stuff like
~Umm, I don’t think
its possible to develop an eating disorder unless there is
something psychologically, not wrong, just maybe you’ve got a
vulnerability somewhere, and for me it was a lot about physical
appearance very much because of being tall, the word big gets used
medical explanations for eating disorders, constructing the
experience as something that the individual will ever fully
understand. Alternatively, Amanda constructs counseling as the
only means of countering media influence. The absence of the word
‘trigger’ in her interview is noticeable as other interviewees
used it. Her use of the term ‘resist’ suggests instead that she
has greater control, due to the counselor’s positive influence.
Amanda uses medical terminology to explain why her eating problems
developed, seemingly ‘psychologizing’ herself in her explanation.
In this context, Amanda is constructing herself as more vulnerable
to media influences than other women.
The women draw on a
variety of discourses in discussing their eating problems and the
media. These include arguments that media messages create a lack
of control around food (through advertising), and that this chaos
overlaps into other areas of their lives. Others construct
themselves as actively engaging with media, but deliberately using
it to ‘feed’ their eating problems. Different texts are claimed
here to have varying effects. Music videos and magazines are seen
as particularly damaging, as these texts are more visual than
other media, and are suggested to simply be a forum for the
display of women’s bodies. These arguments tend to ignore the
complex way which body ideals, dieting tips, and empowerment
messages are combined in these media forms. There are observations
that texts designed to educate about eating disorders both
glamorize and sanitize eating disorders, thus ignoring the
physical and emotional pain associated with these ‘illnesses’. The
media’s depiction of anorexia, in particular, is seen as
unrealistic. Books, in contrast to television and magazines, are
suggested to give a more realistic portrayal of eating disorders.
A number of the interviewees suggest media are not a major causal
factor in their eating problems, although they still draw on the
media blaming discourse, possibly because it is easily accessible
at the time, given my prompting questions.
Young females are
seen as more vulnerable to media messages, with some ‘naturally’
developing an addiction to media. Others appear to believe there
are forces stronger than media, which can counter its effects.
These include the medical profession, support groups, and
spiritual forces. Another means of countering media influence is
through education. Knowledge of feminist theory seems to be viewed
by some participants as empowering, providing them with
alternative responses to the psychologically destructive messages
offered by the media.
Again, I need to
acknowledge that this analysis is not intended to reveal any
‘facts’ about eating disorders. The participants recruited for
this research are not representative of all people with eating
problems, and there are a variety of factors that shaped their
responses in the interview sessions.
This paper has
demonstrated some of the complexity in the ways in which
individuals seem to draw upon media blaming discourses. Even
within this small sample of participants there is no clear
consensus on the media’s role in creating and developing eating
disorders. While clinicians and experts in the field are obviously
aware of the diversity of responses to media, this has not yet
perpetuated common sense understandings. For eating disorders to
be taken seriously in public circles, instead of being seen as a
“a yuppie kind of illness- a phase that mainly young women go
through and grow out of” (Williams, 2001) the general public need to be educated about
the multi-factorial nature of eating disorders. This education may
have implications for marginalized groups who are scared to admit
they have eating problems, such as homosexuals (Thompson, 1994) or men (Andersen, 1990).
There are also
economic consequences of enhancing public understandings. Eating
disorder treatments and research is extremely under-funded
(Gordon, 2000; Vandereycken, 2003) in comparison to more physical illness like
cancer, possibly due to the ambivalent nature and lack of
understanding of eating problems, of which attribution to media
influence is just one part. There is a need for more qualitative
research in this field, as starvation (in its varying forms) is a
subjective experience that evades simplistic explanations.
Thank you to Dr.
Craig Hight and Dr. Anne Kennedy for their excellent supervision
throughout my Masters research, on which this paper is based.
Thank you also to Dr. Anne Honey, Vikki Fraser, Rosie Christenson
and Yardena Bolton Pederson who read drafts of the paper.
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A list of five interview questions is provided as a guide to
readers. The interviewing
style comprised of broad questions followed by prompts to
clarify the participant’s meaning and interviewers understanding
e.g., “Do you mean that …”; Are you saying that …”
you aware of any arguments about media influence on eating
How did you become aware of these
What is your reaction to the
Do you believe media had an
influence on your eating disorder?
Have you seen
any media that portrays eating disorders?
Participants have given their permission for their interviews to
be used in my Masters thesis and other publications.
 The themes I developed were discussed with my supervisor for
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