The media’s dangerous influence on body image

Television, advertising and more can send young girls the wrong message about what is a healthy — and normal — body weight

fiji girls

Girls in Fiji have become more weight-conscious since becoming exposed to North American television shows, research has shown. 

fotopfritz16 / iStockphoto

Researchers say it is too early to know whether social media is having a big impact on the number of people who develop eating disorders. In the United States and other countries, the overall rate of eating disorders has remained steady for decades. That isn’t always the case elsewhere, including the southern Pacific island nation of Fiji.

Here, for nearly 20 years, Anne Becker has probed the effects of media on youth. She wants to know how outside influences — such as media and networks of friends — affect a young girl’s body image.

Becker is an expert on eating disorders at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She chose to study girls in Fiji for two reasons. The first: Until the mid-1990s, doctors had reported only one case of anorexia nervosa in this entire country. She wanted to know what may have protected the girls in Fiji from this disorder.

The second reason: People in remote areas of Fiji had almost no exposure to television until 1995. That’s when their government began allowing TV stations to broadcast Western programs. Almost overnight, youth became exposed to Western media.

Until very recently, Fiji’s culture valued large, robust and strong-boned women. In fact, the culture encouraged women to eat a lot. When Becker started looking for evidence of eating disorders in 1995, she couldn’t find a single report of a girl in Fiji who had purged — vomited — to manage her weight. Then Western TV exploded onto the scene. People started watching shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and The X-Files. Becker wondered if the images and ideas in these shows might have affected peoples’ views of what the ideal woman should look like.

And sure enough, signs of a change were emerging by 1998. In one small survey of teen girls in Fiji, slightly more than one in every 10 reported having vomited to lose weight. “That is an oh-my-gosh kind of finding,” says Becker. “That’s about what you would expect in a Massachusetts high school.” In addition, more than three-quarters of the girls reported that television influenced their body image.

Becker and her colleagues reported the results in a 2002 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Over the next decade, Becker’s team continued to study the impacts of TV and other media. In 2007, they surveyed more than 500 school girls between the ages of 15 and 20 in Fiji. At least four girls in every 10 reported having purged to manage their weight. Some said they had taken traditional herbs that can induce purging.

The researchers also found that the girls didn’t even have to be directly exposed to Western media to be affected. If friends had been exposed, they could pass along the media’s influence. So social networks — school friends, conversations at school and interactions with social media — could introduce a girl to the attitudes about leanness popular in Western media, the study found. In fact, they found a stronger link between social networks and dangerous eating behaviors than if a girl had watched Western TV shows and ads herself.

“These friends likely set and change the social norms,” says Becker. This appears to be an important way that attitudes as to what’s considered “normal” get established at schools and in communities, she says. Social networks pass along values about how one “should” look, she concludes. 

Power words

anorexia nervosa    An eating disorder that involves self-starvation and excessive exercise to lose weight.

behavior  The way a person or other organism acts toward others, or conducts itself.

body image    The impression individuals have about how attractive or comfortable they feel about the way their body is shaped — or how it looks when they view it in a mirror.

bulimia nervosa    An eating disorder involving overeating followed by purging (deliberately vomiting up a meal).

eating disorder     An illness of the mind involving dangerously unhealthy patterns of eating and weight loss or gain.

media      (in sociology) A term for the ways information is delivered and shared within a society. It encompasses not only the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — but also Internet- and smartphone-based outlets, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more. The newer, digital media are sometimes referred to as social media.

norms   The attitudes that are considered normal or conventional within a society at the present time.

purging      The act of intentionally removing something. (in eating disorders) A term for intentionally vomiting after eating to keep the calories in food from being used by the body. It is a harmful behavior practiced by some people with eating disorders, especially those suffering from bulimia nervosa.

social media     Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, that allow people to connect with each other, often anonymously, and to share information.

social network    Communities of people that are interrelated owing to the way they relate to each other, such as sharing details of their life and interests on Twitter or Facebook, or perhaps belonging to the same sports team, religious group or school.

West, or Western      (in the social sciences) A term that refers to things in or from the Western Hemisphere, usually the northern half of that hemisphere. The term can be used in referring to politics, fashion, religious beliefs, music, movies or general prevailing public attitudes.

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