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Does the Media Cause Eating Disorders?

Learn about the connection between eating disorders and the media from Allegra Broft, M.D. in this Howcast video.


Eating disorders in the media is a hot topic. A variety of people are often curious when they ask me about eating disorders, "Like, well, aren't these problems that are really caused by the media?"

We see all these images in magazines of thin, emaciated looking models, celebrities on TV. Then we see tabloid magazines that so many women are reading these days, that even post pictures or models looking at a very thin, low weight. And they even post the weight as like 83 pounds, and there's really sort of a glorification of a very thin ideal that's pervasive in media these days.

It's interesting, within medicine, there are actually some very reputable scientific journals that have actually looked at this phenomenon. They've looked at things like Playboy centerfold body mass index, BMI, which is sort of a standardized measure of weight for height, measuring the BMI of the centerfolds from like the years 1960 to the present. And it's been shown that if you put those on a graph that there's just a straight trajectory downward so that the average BMI of a model on the front of a magazine these days is maybe in the range of 18 to 19 compared to 21, 22, thirty, forty years ago.

However, a very important point that I want to make about the media's contribution, potential contribution, to the emergence of eating disorders is that eating disorders, certainly anorexia nervosa, we know to be an old illness. Anorexia nervosa has been around, been described, certainly further back that 100 years. The term was coined "anorexia nervosa" over 100 years ago and there's actually descriptions of saints from the middle ages, Saint Catherine of Siena is an example of women who were very pious, holy, renounced food, ate very little, were very, very thin, all in the service of religion. And so we have had the emergence of eating types of problems that sound an awful lot like anorexia nervosa, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, and may have a slightly different cultural context that, nonetheless, are probably very similar to what we see now as anorexia nervosa.

The other pieces that were all exposed to these media images, every day, and only a very small number, or relatively small number of women, 1 percent or so, are developing eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. So while all of us are seeing these media images, a relatively small number are developing these eating problems, and so there's obviously many, many other factors that are sort of contributing to the emergence of these problems.

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