Eating disorders in today’s youth are on the rise. Out of the many factors media may play, the largest role is its influence on appearance beliefs.
Over the past 50 plus years, media, as well as eating disorders, have been on the rise. Today, more than ever, media floods our minds influencing beliefs and ideals.
Startling statistics reveal today’s youth spends 6-7 hours per day immersed in various forms of media . This much time may take advantage of youth’s vulnerability, causing absorption of the need to meet media’s “body ideals.”
Body Beliefs and Ideals
At young ages, our brains are not yet programmed to decipher what is real vs. what is media’s deception. Media, along with the fashion industry, portrays a “thin ideal” and a state of flawlessness through manipulating photos and images.
Genetically we are all born with a unique body, shape, and size. The idea that there is an “ideal body” plants a seed that young girls must change their bodies to be perceived as beautiful or accepted.
Such thoughts may compromise youth’s emotional well-being, lead to low self-esteem, increase the risk of depression and eating disorders .
A meta-analysis of 25 studies sought to examine the relationship between media exposure and body ideals . This revealed, when viewing thin media images there was a significant increase in negative body image, especially in women younger than 19 years old .
One issue may be the portrayed relationship between happiness, health, and thinness in the media. Too often, the focus is on needing to change the body rather than accepting our own unique body, shape, and size.
Body Dissatisfaction and Engagement in Perceived Weight Changing Behaviors
The “thin ideal” has increased young girls’ beliefs that even normal body weight is “overweight.” This promotes unrealistic female standards that are unachievable without harming or punishing the body.
One study revealed, 44% of young girls thought they were overweight and 60% of these girls were actively trying to change their body . Sadly, majority of these girls were of a normal body weight .
Another study found that young girls who frequently viewed fashion magazines were more likely to have dieted and engaged in exercise programs .
Again, media exposure may plant a seed of body dissatisfaction that grows into a need to change the body no matter the cost of health, relationships, and emotional well-being.
In a meta-analysis, media exposure was related to women and adolescents’ increased spending on appearance improvements and increased susceptibility to eating disorders .
Many young girls will end up engaging in skipping meals, exercising obsessively, inducing purging, laxative use, or diet pills and teas  to change their bodies. This obsession with being thin will lead to mental and physical health concerns.
Moving Beyond the Media’s Influence
Dependent on the vulnerability of young girls, the media’s impact will vary. Again, media may negatively impact body image, self-esteem, food, dieting, and eating disorders .
At the forefront of shielding, today’s youth are parents, teachers, health care providers, and other professionals. Whether in a medical visit or simply a “how did your day go” conversation, regular inquiry about what media youth is watching, reading, following should be of concern.
It’s not just about what is being seen, read, or followed, but also how is this information is being interpreted? No matter how much we try to shield or protect, today’s youth is still going to be exposed to the media’s messages.
Media literacy, or the development of understanding media and having the ability to critically evaluate the content, is important in the growth of today’s youth. Some schools have incorporated media education into their curriculums, but not all .
Research currently available shows the incorporation of media education decreased the harmful effects of media violence and alcohol advertisement . More research is warranted when it comes to an understanding the impact of media education on eating disorders.
Apart from education, those of us interacting with today’s youth must recognize our influence. Are we promoting or trying to achieve the ideals portrayed within the media? Or are we involved in advertising unrealistic body ideals, dieting, cleanses, etc.?
We must ask, how can we advocate for a Healthy at Every Size model? The goal should be to empower young girls and ourselves by practicing and teaching self-love and acceptance.
References: Morris, A. M., & Katzman, D. K. (2003). The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents. Paediatrics & Child Health, 8(5), 287–289. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/8.5.287  Uchôa, F. N. M., Uchôa, N. M., Daniele, T. M. D. C., Lustosa, R. P., Garrido, N. D., Deana, N. F., Aranha, G. C. M., & Alves, N. (2019). Influence of the Mass Media and Body Dissatisfaction on the Risk in Adolescents of Developing Eating Disorders. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(9), 1508. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16091508
About the Author:
Raylene Hungate, RD/N, LD/N is a registered dietitian dedicated to providing the utmost care and support to those struggling with mental health. As a supporter of the Health at Every Size movement and the idea that all foods fit, she is passionate about helping others explore a life full of nourishment and bursting with flavor.
As an eating disorder dietitian, Raylene works not only in Private Practice, but also as a dietitian for an eating disorder treatment center in Los Angeles, California. She finds great joy in guiding others through an empowering journey of self-discovery and healing.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published June 24, 2021 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on June 24, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC