Bulimia – Overcoming Media’s Message to be Thin: Part 1 of 2

Contributor: Kirsten Haglund, Community Relations Specialist, Timberline Knolls

The issues that surround eating disorders are varied and complex: What causes them? How can they be treated? Do people ever fully recover?

One of the questions asked constantly is: What role does the media, or our culture, play in the onset of eating disorders? Answering that question has been the subject of countless panel discussions, articles, conferences, documentaries.

However, advocates, victims and their families, and treatment providers aren’t empowered to fight back against a destructive culture until we fully understand why the media-entertainment-advertising complex acts the way it does.

What Is the True Impact of Media?

These industries act rationally within the economic and cultural environment that they exist. They respond to incentives, want to maximize profits and benefits to share or stakeholders. Instead of dismantling the system entirely, we can exert our power as consumers to change demand.

Applying the right pressure forces media conglomerates to respond if they are to remain players in a competitive market. But it’s up to us to play the game to win. The ball is in our court.

So from here, I’d like to outline the basics:

  • What messages does the media send?
  • Why does the media try to manipulate our emotions and thinking?
  • How does this contribute to the development of eating disorders?
  • What can we do about it?

Direct and Indirect Push Towards “Thin”

First, what messages do the media send?

Some messages the media send are explicit, some are implicit. This means some they say outright, others they communicate through images, videos, and lyrics. The messages are – in the context of eating disorders – that one should be thin, beautiful, display their body, and, depending on your race or ethnicity, strive for a particular body size and shape.

In other words, conform to something defined as “socially acceptable.”

Emotional Appeal in Advertising

digital-388075_640Second, Why does the media try to manipulate our emotions and thinking?

These messages appeal to our emotions, not our rational minds. They make us feel things: a desire to be loved or accepted, insecurity about looks or accomplishments, envious, titillated… Any number of things. The goal is to get you, the consumer, to respond to these feelings.

Through advertising, they aim to make it easier for you to translate that emotional response into a purchase, or in the long-term, brand loyalty.

They know as soon as your rational brain gets involved in decision-making related to a purchase, they’ve lost you.

The Influence Towards an Eating Disorder

Next, How does this contribute to the development of eating disorders?

Coupled with biological and genetic factors, images that appear frequently (ok, all over) in the media can trigger underlying emotional issues that can manifest themselves in distorted body-image and disordered eating. This includes:

— not to mention anxiety, depression and other behavioral health issues. I emphasize coupled with biological and genetic factors, because not every person who reads a fashion magazine is going to get an eating disorder.

An Unattainable, Unsatisfying Goal

However, the culture perpetuates a stereotype of beauty and body that is unattainable for most, and harmful to all. The perfection (subjective anyway), achieved by photoshop is unreal, from a logical perspective, so when people compare themselves to a digitally altered image, there are bound to be seriously dangerous consequences.

In particular, the messages completely distort the concepts of moderation and balance – promoting indulgence on the one hand (Dove chocolates, fast-food, easy online purchases, alcohol/party-mentality), and thinness and asceticism on the other (fitspiration, very thin body-ideals, diets and weight-loss measures).

This leads to a tremendous amount of confusion as to what is “normal,” and contributes especially to the onset of bulimia and binge-eating, as the next generation of young girls is being told to indulge themselves, but feel guilt and strive for perfection – at the same time.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What are your thoughts on the role that media plays in the onset of eating disorders?


The opinions and views of our guest bloggers are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.