The Media & Advertising

There's no denying that the media has a huge influence on people, and when it comes to advertising, that is exactly what they are banking on.  It's certainly worth discussing the impact a constant onslaught of size zero models and endlessly buff men in advertising has on people.  Twenty plus years ago, it was shocking to see the “heroin-chic” look arrive on the runways, putting the spotlight on emaciated waif-like girls and women.  A generation of girls has since grown up and is currently growing up with no reference point to how models used to be mostly curvy, with the “California beach girl” or “the girl next door” look being prominent.  Nowadays when you page through any number of fashion and women’s magazines, you see a lot of obviously thin or underweight girls and women, often looking bored or in some sort of narcotic state, staring at you from the ads, trying to sell you perfume or a pair of jeans.  It’s important that parents talk to their kids and help them understand that these pictures are fantasy and their goal is to make you feel inferior, then separate you from the contents of your bank account. 

The models, actresses, singers and others in the pictures already start out with every conceivable advantage:  hair stylist, make-up artist, wardrobe expert, professional lighting, and a talented photographer.  Then there’s Photoshop and other airbrushing software, which has created a Frankenstein effect in print advertising and photography.  Google “photoshopped pictures” and explore just how fake these pictures are.   Every supposed imperfection is banished and women, in particular, are slimmed down electronically, as if healthy-sized hips and legs are a crime.  There’s nary a wrinkle, blemish or natural line on a body in sight.  Boobs are made bigger and butts are made smaller.  Meanwhile, a generation of young girls and teenagers believes these pictures are real, and struggles to understand why what they see in the mirror doesn’t compare.  Add in the unrealistic images of women in pornography (which is so readily available to any age person online), and it’s no wonder females often feel they simply can’t compete with how the media tells them they should look.

Modeling agencies have been reported to actively pursue anorexic models. The average female model weighs up to 25% less than the typical woman (a great deal of them are half the size of today’s average-size woman), and maintains a weight at about 15 to 20 percent below what is considered healthy for her age and height.  Yet this is all presented as if the look in the commercial or the print ad is completely obtainable for everyone, provided they are willing to buy what is being sold.  There is no room to celebrate individual looks and varied body sizes, because we have it drilled into our heads that The Ideal is the only acceptable look.

With an increased population of children who spend a lot of time in front of television and the internet, there are millions of little ones growing up with a superficial sense of who they are. Images on t.v. spend countless hours telling us to lose weight, be thin and beautiful, and buy more stuff, because people will like us better and we will be happier. Programming on the tube rarely depicts men and women with "average" body types or wearing crappy clothes, thus supporting the idea that the world is full of camera-ready individuals with great wardrobes.  Overweight characters are often portrayed as lazy, unpopular, the bad guy, or the wacky best friend who is there to help their thin or buff, beautiful friend find love.  It is the thin women and pumped-up men who are usually the successful, popular, sexy and powerful characters on a television show and in many movies. It makes it hard to get our kids to believe “it's what's inside that counts”, when the media continuously contradicts this message.

Diet advertisements are another heavy influence. In magazines and newspapers, on television and online, we are continually exposed to the notion that losing weight will make us happier and it will be through yet another diet plan.   Time and time again it has been proven that, for the long-term, regimented diet plans DO NOT work, yet our society continues to buy into the idea that they do. Pop culture's imposed definition of "the ideal body", combined with the diet industry's drive to make more money, creates a never-ending cycle of ad upon ad that tries to convince you that if you just lose weight, your life will be good.  Thin = happy.  A smaller waist = less problems in life.  A goal weight = life can now begin.  Factor in the increasing number of people in our society who are overweight or morbidly obese, and you just about guarantee that the Diet Culture is here to stay.  Despite the fact that visiting a nutritionist or dietician, and addressing any underlying issues that lead to overeating or binge eating, is much more effective in bringing about permanent weight loss, the diet companies want you to believe that the real problem is you haven’t tried their diet yet.

We can’t blame the media for eating disorders.  After all, hundreds of millions of people are exposed to the typical Western-style media, but only a fraction of them develop eating disorders.  The media can definitely factor in as an influence for having an eating disorder, as well as be a negative influence on those who are trying to recover, but we can’t lay blame at their feet and consider it “case closed”.  Ultimately, if a person’s life situation, environment, and even genetics leave them vulnerable to an eating disorder (or other issues like alcoholism, drug abuse or depression), they will still end up in the same place regardless of television or advertising.

Society & Culture

Our culture (which we create) continues to perpetuate, whether consciously or subconsciously, the ideal of thinness through the conversations, judgments and teasing of peers, loved ones and strangers in which we engage. The association of shame with weight, particularly for women (when was the last time you or a woman you know volunteered her weight?), is not only prevalent but viewed as normal.  People – again, especially women – think nothing of denigrating themselves and others regularly.  “I can’t wear shorts, my legs are fat.”  “You shouldn’t eat that, it’s fattening.” “Have you seen so-and-so lately?  She’s gained a ton of weight!”  These are all shame-based statements that help a person stay in a downward spiral.   Even more passive statements contribute to the negativity associated with weight gain and the reward for weight loss.  How often does a wife ask her husband, “Do I look fat in this?" or does someone, immediately upon greeting a friend, declare, “You’ve lost weight!"  Through this type of focus on body sizes, and assigning labels of “good” and “bad” to them, we continue to emphasize the idea that how we look and what we weigh is of utmost importance. Many of us blame the magazines and diet ads, while we walk around guilty of some of the same "crimes".

We are often a nation of extremes:  someone who is either an obsessive gym rat or a dedicated couch potato.  Too often, there is no consistent example set for children that communicates that moderate, regular exercise is good for us and essential for our health. They either see a parent rigorously obsessed with burning calories and fat, or immersed in an almost complete lack of physical activity. We also live in the age of the video game and the internet, where many of our children spend countless hours in front of any number of screens (tv, computer, gaming system, smart phone).  Kids in turn watch their parents sit in front of the tube, at the computer, or hunched over their own phones for hours on end. It is important to encourage your kids to go outside and play, and to teach them about exercise. They need to know that there is such a thing as too much or too little exercise.  What they learn as kids (healthy or not), they often incorporate into life-long habits as adults.

High-Risk Groups

Because of society's historical role in setting what is perceived as the "standard" for the average individual, the same is true of specific groups of individuals. There are certain groups of people that are particularly at risk for developing an eating disorder.  Ballet and other dancers, gymnasts, figure skaters, and other athletes fall into a high-risk category.  A myriad of hours of exercise and rehearsals, along with intense pressure from coaches and instructors, and even peers and family, to stay at or below a certain weight can have an unhealthy impact, and even set the stage for habits that become an eating disorder.    The pressure not to let the team or group down that can come from teammates or fellow dancers/gymnasts can be devastating, as well as the pressure a performer or athlete learns to put on themselves.  The stress to be perfect in all ways can take an emotional toll, as well as a physical one.

Adolescence is a time of confusion when teens are often trying to discover who they are as they journey closer to adulthood. They face increased independence, life choices and new friendships, and they begin to date and seek acceptance from the opposite (or same) sex and their peers.  All of this while their bodies are changing and their hormones are raging. This, combined with any additional problems in their family, friendships or new relationships, can easily put teens at a higher risk for an eating disorder.  College students feel pressure to succeed. Additional stress factors include making new friends, moving away from home for the first time, and a new sense of independence and freedom that often combines with confusion and fear. There is a heavier work load expected of them, including late-night studying and cramming for exams, as well as a new sense of having to be responsible for taking care of their own meals. This is usually one of the first major turning points they face as young adults, requiring a time of adjustment that can send them into a tale-spin. 



Barbie and Barbie-type dolls have often been blamed for playing a role in the development of body-image problems and eating disorders. These dolls have unrealistic, tiny body sizes, which are pointed out from time to time in articles illustrating what a Barbie doll would look like if she were life-size.  You’ve likely seen one of these articles or images and marveled at the comparable size of a Barbie waist or thigh (no actual woman can match up).  The argument can also be made that these types of dolls instill the belief that beauty, being thin, having a huge, gorgeous wardrobe and a lot of material things equates to happiness.  Barbie has a plethora of accessories available to purchase, including Ken, her attractive boyfriend.  As Barbie moved into the feminist era, many people considered it a positive step forward when she began having careers, such as being a veterinarian, an astronaut, a police officer, and even a presidential candidate.   One could argue that some of them are a bit of a misfire, like Dentist Barbie, who wears a mini-skirt to work and has enough hair that her patients would choke on it.

It's worth taking in the idea that these types of dolls may reinforce an unrealistic body size, a focus on beauty, and an expectation that girls should be some sort of princess; all of these beliefs being taken in by the little girls who consume all things Barbie.  Yet there’s no need for every parent to boycott a series of dolls.  What helps is to encourage your child to see Barbie as more than just a fashionista or a job assigned to her.  She may be Dr. Barbie or a fairy princess by day, but there’s no reason she can’t also play baseball, drive a sibling’s toy dump truck around the living room, or let Ken cook dinner for her.  Parents can make sure to gently point out to their daughters that while it’s fun to play with their doll’s clothes and hair, those are only part of the picture of what a woman is about or interested in.  Role model the importance of being a well-rounded female (both literally and figuratively) and your child will be the better for it.



THE MEDIA INFLUENCE:  How the Media, Society & Culture Impact Us & What We Can Do About It