Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Does Interpersonal Attraction to Thin Media Personalities Promote Eating Disorders?

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Does Interpersonal Attraction to Thin Media Personalities Promote Eating Disorders?

Article excerpt

To argue that media images of the thin body ideal influence young people's eating behaviors and attitudes toward their bodies is similar to arguing that violent media influence young people's aggression-related attitudes and behaviors. Both arguments have drawn great numbers of supporters. The growing prevalence of eating disorders in the United States and other industrialized societies, coupled with the prevalence of conspicuously thin models and actors featured in the media, have become cause for alarm among those concerned with how children, adolescents, and young adults use social information to build a healthy self-image and develop healthy eating habits. The consensus among medical professionals, researchers, and lay people alike is clear: Regarding our children's body image, something has gone wrong.

The two main eating disorders associated with the attainment of thinness are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by the refusal to eat enough to maintain body weight over a minimal norm for age and height, an intense fear of gaining weight, body image disturbances, and possible amenorrhea (temporary cessation of menstruation); bulimia nervosa is characterized by a pattern of bingeing (eating large quantities of food over short periods of time) followed by attempts to compensate for this excessive caloric intake by vomiting, using laxatives, severe restrictive dieting or fasting, or overexercising (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Eating disorders appear to be a predominantly female problem. The American Psychiatric Association (1994) estimates the ratio of women to men with eating disorders to be 10 to one. Reports of the prevalence of disordered eating indicate that 0.5-3% of the general population (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), and 4-22% of college-age females, depending on the sample, report engaging in anorexic or bulimic behavior (Collins, Kreisberg, Pertschuk, & Fager, 1982; Pyle, Neumann, Halvorson, & Mitchell, 1990; Thompson & Schwartz, 1982). While it is difficult to know whether eating disorders are actually becoming more prevalent or just reported more frequently, the general consensus among clinicians is that the incidence of disordered eating has risen steadily over the past 30 years, and disordered eating has begun to change from a disease of young, white, middle class girls and women to a more equal-opportunity affliction, especially in Westernized societies (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Dolan, 1989; Schwartz, Thompson, & Johnson, 1982; Stoutjesdyk & Jevne, 1993).

Despite increased social concern over disordered eating and commitment among professionals to relieve the problem, the set of factors hypothesized to cause anorexia and bulimia is so broad and disparate that the search for a single definitive "cause" is likely to be futile. White (1992) argues that the four major categories of risk factors associated with disordered eating--biological, psychological, familial, and sociocultural--interact to set the stage for eating disorders to develop. The goal of this study was to examine one potential sociocultural risk factor: exposure and attraction to mass media images of the thin female ideal.

The Role of Media Images in Perpetuating the Thin Ideal

Researchers in the fields of media effects and eating disorder theory have suggested that the media play a significant role in transmitting thinness-oriented norms and values to children, adolescents, and young adults. Garfinkel and Garner (1982), two prominent eating disorder researchers, argue that the most successful and beautiful protagonists in the media are portrayed as thin, and that this association has led viewers to connect thinness with self-control and success. Historical trends and effects studies substantiate the claim that media images of thinness foster and reinforce a social climate in which thinness is considered essential to beauty, especially for women. …

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