Reading About Diet Can Encourage Eating Disorders
> 1/3/2007 2:51:52 PM

Americans, and particularly young American women, increasingly turn to the mass media and its endless propagation of popular culture to assess and compare themselves. Many of them look, of course, to television, movies and magazines in order to gauge their own relative worth. Also unsurprisingly, those who watch shows, read articles and view advertisements about dieting and weight loss are much more likely to develop eating disorders and body image issues.

Previous research notes that encountering images of super-thin actresses and models immediately fosters negative self-opinons among young women. Since the women on the screen or page are paid to present a certain type of carefully managed appearance, they should not be assumed to represent realistic goals in terms of physical specifics, but many girls look to them for just that - an achievable model on which to judge themselves. Many women's magazines in particular advertise dieting under the guise of overall well-being. While articles with headings like "Get the Body You Want" hardly advocate anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, the ubiquity of these reports affects the women who read them in a largely negative and often subconscious way, fueling unhealthy obsessions with food and appearance. At least 61% of adolescent girls report reading fashion magazines on a regular basis, and the industry's depictions of the female form are demonstrably not representative of the vast majority of the population. The recent death of a prominent Brazilian model by eating disorder only reinforced to the general public the extreme effects that can stem from a pathological obsession with body image.

A study published in the January issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that young women who most frequently read such magazines were twice as likely to engage in unhealthy patterns such as skipping meals, fasting, or smoking to contain their weight. Even more disturbing is the fact that they were three times as likely to resort to extreme weight loss measures such as induced vomiting or laxatives. 14% of American high school girls reported going without food for periods exceeding twenty four hours. Anorexia affects an estimated one percent of girls, bulimia two percent. But the incidence of graded variations on these disorders reaches as high as 15%. The study also found that eating disorders became less common among subjects as their readership of the magazines in question diminished. Male adolescents are also subject to the aims of advertisers, but they have not been studied as extensively as their female counterparts. Surprisingly, the study found the numbers among boys to be only a few points lower than those of girls, with 9% fasting and 4% using vomiting or laxatives to lose weight.

It's clear to all involved that our mainstream media is, at the very least, a passive party to the unfortunate presence of eating disorders in all corners of society. While magazines and TV ads may not intend to bring these problems about, they certainly contribute by airing images of bodies that most people will simply never have. Some ad campaigns do focus on presenting realistic forms, but they are few and far between. How can we seriously address this issue when the diet industry is such an unavoidable presence across all media? Maybe we can start in small ways by limiting exposure. If mothers do not want their daughters to read these magazines or watch these shows, they should probably stop doing it themselves. Doctor's offices, particularly those dealing with pediatrics, should reconsider which magazines they choose for display. Perhaps most of all, we need to talk to young girls about how they see themselves and make them aware of the adverse effects that obsession with diet and appearance can have on their overall physical health. Wanting to look your best is natural. Focusing on ideals that have no grounding in reality is not.

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