Media, Body Image and Eating Disorders
are complex conditions that arise from a variety of factors,
including physical, psychological, interpersonal, and social
issues. Media images that help to create cultural definitions
of beauty and attractiveness are often acknowledged as being
among those factors contributing to the rise of eating disorders.
Media messages screaming “thin is in” may not directly
cause eating disorders, but they help to create the context
within which people learn to place a value on the size and shape
of their body. To the extent that media messages like advertising
and celebrity spotlights help our culture define what is beautiful
and what is “good,”
the media’s power over our development of self-esteem
and body image can be incredibly strong.
Some Basic Facts About the Media’s Influence in
The average US resident is exposed to approximately 5,000 advertising
messages a day (Alfreiter, Elzinga & Gordon, 2003).
• According to a recent survey of adolescent girls, their
main source of information about women’s health issues
comes from the media (Commonwealth Fund, 1997).
• Researchers estimate that 60% of Caucasian middle school
girls read at least one fashion magazine regularly (Levine,
• Another study of mass media magazines discovered that
women’s magazines had 10.5 times more advertisements and
articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines did
(as cited in Guillen & Barr, 1994).
• A study of one teen adolescent magazine over the course
of 20 years found that in articles about fitness or exercise
plans, 74% cited “to become more attractive” as
a reason to start exercising and 51% noted the need to lose
weight or burn calories (Guillen & Barr, 1994).
• The average young adolescent watches 3-4 hours of TV
per day (Levine, 1997).
• A study of 4,294 network television commercials revealed
that 1 out of every 3.8 commercials send some sort of “attractiveness
message,” telling viewers what is or is not attractive
(as cited in Myers et al., 1992).
• These researchers estimate that the average adolescent
sees over 5,260 “attractiveness messages” per year.
for Becoming a Critical Viewer of the Media
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Media messages about
body shape and size will affect the way we feel about ourselves
and our bodies only if we let them. One of the ways we can protect
our self-esteem and body image from the media’s often
narrow definitions of beauty and acceptability is to become
a critical viewer of the media messages we are bombarded with
When we effectively recognize and analyze the media messages
that influence us, we remember that the media’s definitions
of beauty and success do not have to define our self-image or
To be a Critical Viewer, remember:
All media images and messages are constructions. They are NOT
reflections of reality. Advertisements and other media messages
have been carefully crafted with an intent to send a very specific
• Advertisements are created to do one thing: convince
you to buy or support a specific product or service.
• To convince you to buy a specific product or service,
advertisers will often construct an emotional experience that
looks like reality. Remember, you are only seeing what the advertisers
want you to see.
• Advertisers create their message based on what they
think you will want to see and what they think will affect you
and compel you to buy their product. Just because they think
their approach will work with people like you doesn’t
mean it has to work with you as an individual.
• As individuals, we decide how to experience the media
messages we encounter. We can choose to use a filter that helps
us understand what the advertiser wants us to think or believe
and then choose whether we want to think or believe that message.
We can choose a filter that protects our self-esteem and body
image. Help promote healthier body image messages in the media:
• Talk back to the TV when you see an ad or hear a message
that makes you feel bad about yourself or your body by promoting
only thin body ideals.
• Write a letter to an advertiser you think is sending
positive, inspiring messages that recognize and celebrate the
natural diversity of human body shapes and sizes. Compliment
their courage to send positive, affirming messages.
• Make a list of companies who consistently send negative
body image messages and make a conscious effort to avoid buying
their products. Write them a letter explaining why you are using
your “buying power” to protest their messages. Tear
out the pages of your magazines that contain advertisements
or articles that glorify thinness or degrade people of larger
sizes. Enjoy your magazine without negative media messages about
• Talk to your friends about media messages and the way
they make you feel. Ask yourself, are you inadvertently reinforcing
negative media messages through the ways you talk to yourself
(and the mirror), the comments you make to children or friends,
or the types of pictures you have on the refrigerator or around