With 69 percent of girls in Grades 5 to 12 admitting that their vision of the perfect body is influenced by the images the media sends out, eating disorders are once again in the spotlight. In addition, there are 30 million Americans who will struggle with eating disorders at some point in their lifetime. These two figures alone are startling enough, but what is perhaps more heartbreaking is children as young as Grade 1 are expressing a desire to be thinner.
Is it the pull of the media that is coloring the view of our children about how they should look? It seems that this is, indeed, the case; with images like slender celebrities Bridgit Mendler of Good Luck, Charlie and superstar singers Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez dancing across most television screens, it should come as no surprise that 42 percent of girls in Grades 1 to 3 say they want to be thinner, and girls as young as 10 are now saying they are afraid of being fat. The heavier children on children’s television shows are often mocked or they are often portrayed as being evil. Angus (Aedin Mincks) from the now-defunct ANT Farm was not fat, but compared to the other children on the show, he was heavier, and while brilliant, he was socially clumsy. Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons, while a cartoon character, is round and decidedly unintelligent. Trish (Raini Rodriguez) from Austin & Ally does not resemble her slender, athletic peers, and the character is often portrayed as lazy and looking for ways to get out of work. With images like this playing steadily on television for young pairs of eyes to be consumed, does it come as any surprise that young children are now looking to drop pounds where they can?
Eating disorders are also not the sole purview of females, either. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 10 to 15 percent of males are either anorexic or bulimic, but won’t report having an eating disorder because they believe it to be a “woman’s disease.” In addition, 14 percent of gay men appear to be bulimic while over 20 percent seem to be anorexic. While many may believe that eating disorders are what teenagers may begin to be engaged in, these are conditions that can worsen as they age.
According to family therapist Jennifer Lombardi, who recovered from anorexia 17 years ago, therapy for eating disorders has shifted to a more family-centered approach, and families are finding that they are becoming better educated about eating disorders. It is important to note, however, that the media is not the sole influence on the way children and adults view themselves; there are a combination of factors that can influence those who experience eating disorders, including biochemistry, genetics, psychology, culture and environment. Statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders appear to bear this out, in part. 50 percent of those who are believed to have eating disorders also meet the criteria for a diagnosis of depression.
From an environmental perspective, children who have had traumatic childhoods may also engage in unhealthy behaviors that can lead to eating disorders; they may believe controlling their intake may be their only method of control in their lifetime. They may have been extremely bullied about their weight, leading to a desire to continue to control their weight. In addition, those who struggle with depression, anxiety, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may also develop an eating disorder. There are also those individuals who, from a biochemical perspective, may not have the appropriate hormones or “triggers” that help to regulate appetite or diet.
Whatever the reason, it is also clear that the images conveyed by the media have a significant influence on eating disorders as well. With role models that are very slim and athletic, parents are hard pressed to drive home the message that children are accepted and viewed positively when, on television and in the movies at least, appearance governs how one person will treat another. These are confusing messages for both children and parents to navigate and while there is a lot of information available from medical professionals about eating disorders, children tend to glean more information from the media than they do their parents. As scary as that may be, it means that parents will be fighting about the reality of what’s beautiful and the media’s perception of what is beautiful.
By Christina St-Jean
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders