Current research indicates that eating disorders are likely the result of a combination of genetic and environment factors. While environmental factors alone cannot cause an eating disorder, many people have pointed to the role of social pressures for thinness as a factor that can have an impact on individuals who may be genetically predisposed to eating disorders.
It is not surprising that the value society places on being thin can impact those already at risk for eating disorders. In North America, men and women are given the message at a very young age that in order to be happy and successful, they must be thin and fit. Every time they walk into a store they are surrounded by skinny or buff mannequins. Images of emaciated women and muscular men appear on front covers of fashion magazines. Thousands of teenage girls are starving themselves trying to attain what the fashion industry considers to be the “ideal” figure. More than four out of 10 boys in middle and high school regularly exercise with the goal of increasing muscle mass.
Clearly the media has an influence. Regardless of gender, young people want to look like the body images they see on television, in the movies and in magazines.
Television shows featuring thin or very muscular actors make viewers feel like they need to look thin or be super fit in order to be successful. Many actors we see on TV have endured hours of exercise and have deprived themselves of the proper nutrition in order to maintain a thin figure. Some even resort to plastic surgery, liposuction and breast implants. Society is brainwashing young people into believing that being thin is important and necessary. Additionally, television programming promotes weight stigma by stereotyping and making fun of larger characters.
Teenagers also spend a great deal of time on social media sites. These sites provide an additional forum for self-comparison against a thin ideal. In fact, a recent study linked time spent on Facebook to increased rates of disordered eating.
Because different forms of mass media (e.g. television, magazines and internet) are possibly contributing to the development of eating disorders, efforts have been made toward teaching media literacy to children and teenagers as a prevention strategy.
Teenagers need to realize that society’s ideal body image is not achievable. The photos we see in magazines are not real either. Many people don’t realize that those photos have gone through many touch ups and have been air-brushed to make the models look perfect. Teenagers striving to attain society’s unattainable ideal image will just end up increasing their feelings of inadequacy.
Teenagers are under a lot of pressure to be thin. They are lead to believe that the only way they can be accepted and fit in is if they are thin. They resort to exercising excessively, starving, vomiting and eating only diet foods to try to be thin.
Diet commercials are constantly appearing on our television screens, in magazines and on internet pop-up ads, telling us that once we lose the weight, we will be happy. While you’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store you are surrounded by magazines claiming to have the newest and best diet. Each month another new diet appears, claiming to be the diet to end all diets. Whatever happened to last month’s diets that claimed the same thing? Dieting has become an obsession in North America.
We spend billions of dollars each year trying to look the way society tells us we need to look. If diets really work, then why are there so many of them? The reason a new diet pops up each month is because last’s month’s diets did not work. The truth of the matter is that DIETS DON’T WORK. As soon as you start to diet, you automatically set yourself up for failure. Many of the diets on the market right now are also unhealthy. They deprive you of the proper nutrition your body needs to survive and these diets can lead to health problems.
The diet and fashion industries are not totally to blame for society’s obsession with thinness. It’s unfortunate, but in today’s society, people have forgotten that it’s what’s inside a person that counts, not what’s on the outside. We need to start loving and accepting each other for who we are, not what we look like. Next time you decide that you are going to start another diet because you feel you are too fat, stop and sign up for a self-esteem class instead. That would be money well spent. If we learn to love and accept ourselves, we will also begin to love our bodies, no matter what size we are.
It is important to highlight that parents do not cause eating disorders in their children and they cannot necessarily prevent them, since eating disorders are biologically driven illnesses. However, parents can try to help children develop resilience and self-acceptance by teaching children to be proud of who they are. They need to remind them that people come in all shapes and sizes, and teach them to accept everyone for who they are. Parents need to also teach their children the value of healthy eating and not send the message that being thin is all-important.
Once again, I would like to stress the fact that diets don’t work. Eating three healthy meals and a few snacks a day and doing moderate exercise will allow your body to go to its natural set point. It’s important to remember that no food will make you fat, as long as it’s eaten in moderation. Stop buying those fashion magazines and diet products, and stop believing all the lies being told to you by the fashion and diet industries. Instead, focus on learning to love and accept yourself. Seeing a lower number on a scale and fitting into a smaller dress size will not make you happy. Happiness can only come from within.
Updated by Dr. Lauren Muhlheim and Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997