The Portrayal of Anorexia Nervosa in the Media (and the General Lack of Representation of Any Other Eating Disorder)

Magazines

There was a time, a couple of years ago, when I expressed interest in a photoshoot that was going to show people of various shapes and sizes in bikinis or “tasteful white underwear”, to accompany an article on the recovery of eating disorders. As a B-eat media contact, I receive emails about research projects, articles, and surveys to do with eating disorders that I could possibly help out with, which is when I stumbled across this article and the request for those who had recovered or were in recovery to contact the journalist who was to be writing the article.

I expressed my interest, and the journalist and freelance writer who was to write the article responded. She explained that the aim of the article was to have a positive and influential impact on the way eating disorders are viewed in the UK. She wanted to eradicate the myth that a full recovery isn’t possible, and also to present a healthy image of women’s bodies. She expressed that she was aware that the media usually sensationalises eating disorders, and portrays the subject is a very negative light, without ever looking at the recovery journey and people who have achieved remission. She wanted the article to inspire those in the grips of an eating disorder. To me this sounded like an excellent idea until I read with unease that my present weight and clothes size was expected to be included in the article, as was a “before” and “after” photograph.  It stated within the email that she was not looking for a shocking image, but if that was the case, why on earth was there any need for a “before” photograph at all, showing me when I was sick?

If the intent was to raise awareness for non-disordered people, and inspiration for those who have an eating disorder, then a photograph of someone when they are sick would not be beneficial in any way. Disordered people would only be triggered by such images and most likely put off by the weight gain that they see between the before and after photographs (a comparison between the two would be inevitable), and raising awareness means showing a variety of eating disorders: bulimia, EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), and BED (Binge Eating Disorder), as well as anorexia. People who suffer from eating disorders that are not anorexia tend to be of a normal or above normal weight, and therefore a “before” photograph would not illustrate their sickness. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and therefore the problem lies predominantly within the mind, not exclusively within the body. A photoshoot portraying people who are recovered in bikinis or underwear would be positive because it would show those in remission being proud of their bodies instead of feeling ashamed and hiding them, the focus should not be on what clothes size or weight they are now. Giving that number significance just defies the point of recovery and draws attention to what these people have been fighting so hard to get rid of: the destructive obsession with attaching such an importance to a number. Why would that number even be given a mention in an article about recovery?

I replied to the journalist, stating my thoughts on the matter, but she never sent me an email back to answer my questions about it all.

The media need to stop printing photographs of these extremely underweight girls day in and day out. Not only does the frequent publishing of photographs of anorexic individuals numb the viewer, but there is a high risk that it will trigger people with eating disorders to push themselves further into the disease, and hinder those who are trying to recover by possibly sparking a relapse. This could also cause the same for those who are recovered, because being recovered does not mean being cured. One of the eating disorder’s most powerful weapons is its little mantra: you’re not sick enough, and so when faced with images of the worst cases of anorexia, those with eating disorders more than likely have that voice whispering persuasively into their ear. Photographs of anorexics at their lowest weight benefit nobody. Ever.  At the end of the day the use of these images of very underweight people are there to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer, and not for any beneficial reason for those afflicted with the disease.

Notice that I said “girls” in the paragraph above. The prevalence of eating disorders in men is becoming more and more significant, but articles about men with eating disorders are extremely rare, which furthers the stigma surrounding it and invalidates the many men suffering from the illness. We need to start representing the male population who suffer with eating disorders. It is so important that they get recognition and acceptance, so that more men feel able to ask for help and support which they desperately need.

Another negative to these images is that because anorexia nervosa is the eating disorder most visible to the eye, the media focuses almost entirely on that eating disorder only so that they can publish disturbing images alongside the articles to shock the viewer and satisfy their morbid curiosity. This results in the media neglecting to give equal coverage to bulimia nervosa, BED, and EDNOS, not to mention ortherexia nervosa* and ARFID, which most people have not even heard of, and anorexia athletica. Our society seems eager to gawp at people who are physically different in some way to most others; whether they are exceedingly thin, extremely overweight, showing severe symptoms of illness, deformed, or disabled. Some examples of this are the programs Supersize Vs Superskinny, The Undateables, and Embarrassing Bodies. We are overly intrigued to see those deemed physically unattractive try (and often fail) to lead a normal life, but that has got to stop when it effects those in similar situations in a harmful way, which is exactly what the publication of these types of images does. We are so obsessed with staring at those different to us that it becomes the main focus of articles on eating disorders, and so all the other eating disorders get barely any coverage, which is extremely invalidating and perpetuates the myth that anorexia is the only “serious” eating disorder. All eating disorders are life-threatening and soul-destroying, and it is so important that people receive that message loud and clear.

Because the media focuses chiefly on those with severe anorexia nervosa and ignores the existence of other eating disorders, this only enhances the misconception that eating disorders are about weight, and that people who are not severely underweight cannot suffer from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are judged far too frequently by appearance, and people that are of a normal weight or above normal weight are not taken seriously enough by friends, family, and even doctors. The media only panders to that incorrect judgement.

People need to realise that eating disorders are exceptionally harrowing, extremely serious, and utterly destructive mental illnesses, and not some kind of sick pastime in the form of some “light reading” in a glossy magazine.

We are people, and we are suffering: stop parading us around for the entertainment of others.

*Ortherexia nervosa is not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) but was first used by Steven Bratman to characterize people who develop an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. This is something a vast majority of people in recovery from an eating disorder experience a phase of, but it is also very much experienced as a stand-alone mental disorder and should be taken very seriously, as it can result in malnutrition and even death.

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2 thoughts on “The Portrayal of Anorexia Nervosa in the Media (and the General Lack of Representation of Any Other Eating Disorder)

  1. jaclyn

    I cannot believe how insightful and helpful your posts are.I have been suffering for a long time,in and out of the ER,but not taken seriously because I am not underweight.I had to find help my own.It is wonderful that you are educating others that eating disorders come in all sizes.

    Like

    Reply

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