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Eating Disorder Among American Teenage Girls

Info: 4456 words (18 pages) Essay
Published: 28th Apr 2017 in Media

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Research question: To what extent has the modern media had an impact on the development of eating disorders among teenage American girls.

“Every society has a way of torturing its women, whether by binding their feet or by sticking them into whalebone corsets. What contemporary American culture has come up with is designer jeans.”

-Joel Yager, M.D.

ABSTRACT

The problem with eating disorders is that it is impossible to find the root cause of them; this essay focuses on the modern medias influence and the extent of it in regards to the spread of these disorders among teenage girls, in American society. I begin this investigation by defining eating disorders as a psychological disorder, after which I analyze the difficulties associated with discovering the causes. I focus on the two commonly known eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia. This essay analyses the most significant aspects of the modern media, and examines in detail the different types of it, including magazines, television and the Internet, as well as books. To be able to support the data located in this investigation I conducted a survey, where I interviewed 170 teenage girls, to deduce what causes them to diet in the first place.

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I conclude this essay by showing that despite the influence the modern media has on eating disorders, it is not the source of the information, but is simply used as a process to spread information. Because of this it is hard to solely blame the media for eating disorders, which also means that people may overestimate the effect that media alone has on these disorders.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

ABSTRACT 3

INTRODUCTION 5

ROLE OF MODERN MEDIA IN SOCIETY THROUGHOUT HISTORY 6

TYPES OF MODERN MEDIA AND WAYS THAT THEY HAVE INFLUENCED 7

THE SPREAD OF EATING DISORDERS

OTHER FACTORS THAT AFFECT EATING DISORDERS 10

ANALYSIS OF DATA FROM SURVEY 13

CONCLUSION 14

APPENDIX 16

BIBLOGRAPHY 18

INTRODUCTION

The definition of an eating disorder according to an encyclopedia states that it is “a group of psychological ailments characterized by intense fear of becoming obese, distorted body image, and prolonged food refusal and/or binge eating followed by purging through induced vomiting, heavy exercise, or use of laxatives.” [1] From that definition an eating disorder can be categorized as a psychological disorder, which is strictly speaking common knowledge. The truth is that these disorders have become epidemic among teenagers, especially teenage girls. This has led me to focus on this particular segment, as well as to discover the media’s position in this increasing problem, as the media is often accused of being the main cause of these disorders, and some would go so far as to say, the source of this disease. It is no surprise that the promotion of excessive thinness as an ideal body image, as a healthy lifestyle and as one of only ways to be happy, is bombarded at today’s youth. But even though we are constantly attacked with vicious advertising campaigns to lose weight American’s “health has reached a point of crisis. According to the American Obesity Association, 65% of adults and 30% of children are overweight, and 30% of adults and 15% of children meet the criteria for obesity.” [2] Whether society likes it or not, the problem of eating disorders has get out of control over the last few decades, a sufficient amount is now consider as a social problem. This is very bad news, especially when you think that these diseases are already starting to affect girls who are still attending elementary schools, this is because they start dieting, purging or starving themselves in order to look thinner, the truly horrifying part is that these girls are not even teenagers yet. There are clear connections between eating disorders and the medias influence on it, but this is no surprise as the media already influences almost every aspect of our lives. Regardless of its influences, in this essay I shall focus on another aspect of the matter, in other words to what extent is the modern media actually responsible for creating this disorder; and what else could be responsible, even if only partially, for its spread.

ROLE OF MODERN MEDIA IN SOCIETY THROUGHOUT HISTORY

It is not a secret that the modern media has an enormous influence on our lives and how we perceive things in our everyday life. Due to the colossal expansion of technology, information has the ability to travel from one part of the world to another in a split second. Television shows, radio stations, and the entire Internet surrounds us, everywhere we go. And this process does not seem to be slowing down or even attempt to decelerate. Now almost every teenager in America is in possession of a mobile phone, which has to have access to radio stations and Internet sites. They are immediately informed of what is new, what is or is not fashionable, what they should perceive as right or wrong, and what kind of opinions are vital to have. Even though some people still feel that they are in control over their own opinions, they are sadly mistaken, as it is virtually impossible to live in a modern world and not be affected by the media. The process is exactly the same in relation to what has happened to the perception of the body image; the modern media have created an idea of how the perfect body should look like. “Perfection” – is the constant point the media use when showing the public a skeleton covered with a thin layer of skin. They bombard them with these images, and the group of people in American society, who are affected the most and extremely suffer because of this, are girls that are already self conscious and are at a particularly gullible age. They are led to believe that in order to be accepted by society, whether it is at school or in any other social group, girls need to meet the requirements of certain image.

The media is an important and day to day aspect of the American culture; it could even be classed as an ever growing subculture that has been increasing drastically in size over past couple of decades. [3] 

TYPES OF MODERN MEDIA AND WAYS THAT THEY HAVE INFLUENCED THE SPREAD OF EATING DISORDERS

I have decided to discuss the ways modern media accesses the minds of American teenage girls to influence them. After taking all of the various types of media into account, I decided to limit myself to a few ways in terms of importance, my choices include fanzines, fashion magazines, advertisements, movies, and, probably the most important and influential of all, the internet, which is fastest and the most effective in the global transfer of information. [4] 

I began by mentioning magazines; I was referring specifically to magazines that target women and girls. In these magazines it is more than likely that in every issue it is possible for one to find at least one if not many more articles about how to stay fit, how to loose few more pounds, advice regarding dieting, or even starving oneself. Most of these so called ‘tips’ will not only get in the way of you loosing weight and achieving your goal, but in some cases these ‘tips’ may actually be a danger to a persons health, as this ‘advice’ is not recommended by doctors, but by journalists. Young girls do not realize how dangerous this advice may be, or even that it simply does not work. Because of this they become extremely unforgiving towards themselves and diet even more, and when that does not work they begin throwing up or give up eating altogether, hoping it will make the process work a little faster. This is how most of these disorders start. But this is not the only thing that forces these girls to consider that their beauty is not good enough for them and immediately should be changed. [5] These girls reevaluate their definition of beauty, because they are bombarded with images of the ‘perfect’ being, starting from the beautiful and supper skinny princesses from fairytales to the photos of modern day princesses, in other words celebrities and models. These celebrities and models are shown to look wonderful in their clothes and look much better then a ‘regular’ everyday person would, but naturally the magazines fail to mention that the clothes are sown especially to fit the models perfectly, and that all photo sessions are edited so that even the smallest flaws are removed. Unfortunately their prey, the young gullible teenage girls, would not even consider any of this. As the process of photo editing (Photoshop) is an inseparable part of media I consider it an important tool of manipulation.

Another way to spread the image of a very unhealthy body to a wider audience is through the use of commercials. These commercials subconsciously tell us we are too fat, as almost all models in them are a size 6 or less, even when advertising something as average as toothpaste or as obviously unhealthy as McDonald’s. Commercials may not be the direct cause of the insecurities faced by today’s youth, and they most likely do not even realize the extent of the damage they cause as a constant reminder of the body image. [6] Other ways that television can cause teenagers to become more self-conscious include TV shows, or movies that show girls played by actresses, who have even been known to faint, whilst filming, due to malnutrition. For instance popular TV shows focused at teenagers, which in theory should illustrate the lives of teenagers, like 90210 or Gossip Girl, have the main cast acted by adults; therefore girls from 14 to 18 are played by 24 to 28 years old actresses, which gives a completely unacceptable image of a young and still developing girls body. Moreover as these actresses are terribly skinny, this causes complexes among teenagers that are trying to imitate their role models, and, among other things, look exactly like they do. [7] 

As I mentioned, the most important and the most dangerous, of all the types of modern media, is the Internet. One may ask the question: what is so horrifying about Internet? The answer is more complicated than most would actually think. The main problem with the Internet is that the flow of information is entirely unmonitored and too vast for anyone to control it even if they wanted to. This means that shocking websites can be created, that contain information on exactly how to be an anorexic, for example. Despite the information being widely available, it would be highly unlikely for one to find such advice in a magazine, as they may be sued for endangering readers’ lives. It is very hard to sue a website, most often because it is impossible to find its publisher. Web logs (also known as blogs) belonging to American teenage girls have in recent times been created in order to support either anorexia (known as pro-ana) or bulimia (pro-mia). This is something that I found worrying, as well as distasteful, not to mention the extremely questionable ethically. These websites contain information such as how to stay thin, what toothpaste covers the smell of vomit best, or that if you swallow cotton wool soaked in orange juice, you will not be hungry for hours and as an added bonus it does not contain any calories, which helps the young girls with these disorders in achieving their sick goals. Such pages also include an entire collection of photos, of literally starved girls, with comments underneath them with high regards, and by reading that you can feel jealousy and evident desire to look like them. These girls show, through these actions, that they are willing to lay down their life for this “perfect” figure, because as the saying goes ‘no pain, no gain’. Some of the advice on these websites is nonsense or a cruel practical joke, but the majority of it can lead to frightful consequences, including stomach ulcers, loss of hair and teeth, and as you might expect – death. There are a variety of ways and means by which these girls undertake the challenge to have a perfect body image. Of course not all of these girls have in fact anorexia or bulimia, but despite that, more often these damages they have caused on their own bodies are irreversible. This means that they have damaged their bodies for ever and will probably always have trouble with maintaining a constant weight. And what is a worst, constant improvement and breakthroughs in technology have meant that now everything can be located in the Internet, including the types of media mentioned. And from what it seems no one is able to prohibit this constant death promotion. [8] 

OTHER FACTORS THAT AFFECT EATING DISORDERS

Even though the modern media seem to be responsible for the unrelenting spread of eating disorders, mainly due to the materials released for young girls to find everywhere, they are not the only explanation for the increasing sprawl of these disorders. The American society is exposing its youth through a very many different factors that may possibly exasperate the situation further.

As times have changed, children have become more interested in spending all their free time in front of computers or televisions, instead of playing outdoors with their friends. Apart from the changes in their interests, children, now, see only one practical way form of nutrition, which is empty, sugar filled food. Due to these changes in lifestyle it is more than likely that the problem of obesity will occur, which, through the process of a chain reaction, will cause a lack of acceptance among society. This will lead, after a certain amount of time, to certain individuals making irresponsible decisions about dieting, exercising or even undertaking more drastic steps, such as taking diet pills. But this is only a logical succession, due to the reaction of certain lifestyle that most of teenage girls are among. A problem with this logic is that people do not always act rationally, which is why this is only a theory.

Another factor that is strongly connected with the spread of eating disorders in teenage girls, and that may be contrary to expectations, are toy manufacturers. Despite their importance in the body image, they are not as closely connected with modern media as would be expected. Toy manufacturers set extremely high expectations on the way women should look by “developing and marketing the Barbie doll, whose measurements are physiologically impossible” [9] .

Fortunately, the Barbie doll’s figure was slightly altered by its designers in the late 1990’s, into a body image that is somewhat more realistic, but still unlikely to occur naturally. Now “with increased availability of plastic surgery, today’s women are faced with similarly unrealistic expectations every time they open a fashion magazine1”.

Perhaps the most surprising of all is the next factor, which is a whole assortment of books that are meant to show girls that eating disorder is a problem. But these books ultimately end up giving girls hints on how to avoid eating, how to cover up their problems, including not being seen with food, vomiting. This is achieved by real life stories that explain in vivid detail the ordeal that sufferers have faced.

Until now books have been considered to be the least likely to have a negative impact on girls and causing eating disorders, considering the lack of pictures. But nowadays even if a book is created to help and give hope to girls who were unfortunate enough to be touched by anorexia nervosa or bulimia, unconsciously the author of book gives advice on how to be anorectic, by describing the ways in which they can starve, or purge themselves so nobody will notice their problem. Despite being gullible, young girls have picked up on this and use these books for dietary advice. [10] 

One more factor that is present nowadays and is considered one of the most influential causes of eating disorders, and which is really hard to change is the fashion industry and sizes that they constantly promote. The most common problem with this as being a factor is it influences eating disorder by promoting the size “zero” clothing, which is widely spread among girls and is the only size they aim to achieve.

All of this begs the question: how did we allow it to escalate to such an extent, to let it get to this point? It began with fashion designers who would only hire the skinniest girls around, so girls started to become thinner and thinner to reach their dreams, which led to certain image being created of what is fashionable. This situation is complicated because nobody in the industry is willing to admit fault, not the designers and not the modeling agencies, which it ultimately is. Size zero clothing is actually too small for most of the girls who work in modeling, therefore these women promote a figure that is not only unattainable for most women, but is also unattainable for them. Despite the fact that the fashion industry is impervious to almost everything, once editors began protesting, the fashion industry finally needed to respond, by employing ‘bigger’ women, who are still extremely skinny. [11] 

The root causes of these diseases are quite complicated and almost impossible to deduce, mainly due to the many existing theories on the subject, each one based on another aspect of these disorders. A major role is played here by human psyche. As I have mentioned in introduction anorexia and bulimia are both psychological illnesses, which affects young girls in America. It is very difficult to draw a line that separates between a reasonable concern for a shapely figure, which is indeed affected by all factors above, and between weight loss associated with an eating disorder. It has been suggested that dieting takes the form of a disease from the moment from which the person loses control over their behaviors associated with the intake of food and the discharge of ‘unnecessary’ food. People with anorexia nervosa and bulimia are characterized by a large discrepancy between what they feel and what they do. If these diseases, as stated, are in fact psychological and they start with the loss of control over ones own body the problem must be pre-existing, before all the influences of the modern media or society begin to affect these girls with their unhealthy or too healthy lifestyle, fashionable and simply unreal body image.

Anorexia and bulimia are classified as a serious mental illness and should in no case, should it occur, be underestimated. Not every thin person should be suspected of anorexia and not every girl with anorexia is terribly thin. For this reason one should not judge another persons state of mind solely on their body weight. Although in such cases, when a person insists on dieting, despite their skeletal appearance, their self-destructive behavior is closely related to the appearance of their bodies. Due to the dangerous effects of these disorders, many psychiatrists have started to compare anorexia to other dangerous psychological disorders, which have the same problems of perceiving reality. Suffers from anorexia nervosa are characterized by an extreme perfectionism, these people are very systematic and critical of themselves, despite their accomplishments, and also suffers try to do physical activities as often as is possible. [12] They often drop out of friendships, become neurotic and often complain, their self-esteem is very low, and they sink deeper and deeper into depression. Some of the girls that were able to overcome their disorder are proud and relieved that they have finally gained control over their own bodies. [13] 

ANALYSIS OF DATA FROM SURVEY

Throughout whole essay I have tried to discover whether the modern media are actually responsible for girls, in American society, who suffer from eating disorder; of course there will be as many opinions as there are people. Because of these differences in opinion I decided to survey a number of girls, in order to find out what is the real reason for their dieting. It turned out that most of the interviewed teenagers are convinced that they are simply too fat, which clearly shows a correlation between this problem and its connection to their self- esteem. The modern media are partly at fault, as a result of the incessant promotion of skinny figures, but are not necessarily solely responsible, as it could be also be due to trends that occur in each individual society, for example at school, where it is more likely that a girl will be perceived “better” only because she looks thinner than one of her peers. Unfortunately there is no concrete proof that any of these factors are in any way responsible, let alone fully responsible, but at the same time there is also no solid proof that states that the modern media has an impact at all on eating disorders, as anorexia and bulimia are psychological diseases.

CONCLUSION

As I have shown, the problem of eating disorders among teenage girls in America is very complicated and there is no one particular factor that has influenced the spread of it. It is impossible to conclude that the modern media is for certain the blame for this spread. There is a strong cultural influence on these girls that pushes them to the point of starvation. It is now believed that society may be able to prevent the spread of eating disorders, by simply changing their eating habits. These changes could include teaching youngsters about the importance of their eating habits and the importance of having a balanced diet. They should also be taught about the ethnic differences in diet, which should not be taken lightly. Yet another strong influence on girls, especially younger ones, but not necessarily connected to the modern media as mentioned above are toy manufactures, which create unrealistic role models for young girls. Despite this, due to advertising, which is a type of modern media, almost everything ranging from books to movies that are advertised automatically become a media influenced problem. Therefore I believe that it is safe to say that all of these factors are interdependent. And even though culture sets a certain way of living, when it is promoted by the media, it qualifies as part of the modern media sector. Following this train of thoughts it is hard to define precisely whether the media influences the spread of eating disorders, or is it just used as a way to pass on information. If this is the case it would be significant to determine what can be classed as media, and what should not be. The modern media, even though it is widely promoted through the use of advertising, television series, films or, the most significant of all, the Internet, it does not necessarily mean that they are the source of the information. In most cases the modern media are used as just a way to promote information, but are not in fact the direct cause of it, thus the interdependence.

If the modern media does not have as a significant impact as is considered, then American society should focus more on teenage girls and their welfare, and especially take care of them in a way that involves parents, as well as society, paying more attention to their development. According to ‘The American Academy of Pediatrics’ current advice is that children should watch less than two hours of television a day and that parents should be involved during this time by monitoring what they are watching and later discussing and explaining the content to them. If this advise would be followed, then maybe the spread of eating disorders may be limited. [14] 

APPENDIX

Questionnaire for English B Extended Essay:

1. Are you

a. Female

b. Male

2. Have you ever diet?

a. If so, why?

3. How many times?

a. once

b. twice

c. more than twice

d. I am always on diet

4. Did you succeeded?

Yes

Not really

I’m in progress

5. Are you planning to get on a diet again?

Yes

No

Maybe

Responses:

1. Total number of female responses 170

2. 159 have already diet (93%); 11 did not (7%)

In order to make it easier to analyze I have grouped answers to open question into 2 most significant groups:

Girls felt they need to change – 148

(Mostly because they felt fat or needed to fit their clothes)

Did not have a reason – 11

3. a. 23 (14,5%)

b. 27 (17%)

c. 78 (49%)

d. 31 (19,5%)

4. a. 12 (7%)

b. 44 (28%)

c. 103 (65%)

5. a. 111 (70%)

b. 6 (4%)

c. 42 (26%)

 

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