Laurie and Debbie say:
Eating disorders have gotten a lot more press in the last decade or so than they used to, and a lot of that press is in the glossy women’s (and girls’) magazines, such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Seventeen.
On the face of it, this seems like a good thing. However, two researchers at the University of Alberta have analyzed how these magazines cover the issue. The results are hardly surprising.
Although research suggests that bulimia (insatiable overeating) is up to three times more common than anorexia (deliberate starvation), Inch and Merali found that 75 per cent of the 42 articles they identified were features on anorexia.
They also found 97 per cent of the articles mentioned at least one disordered eating behaviour, with many highlighting common weight loss strategies such as the consumption of non-nutritive substances, and yet scarcely more than half mentioned the fact that eating disorders are potentially fatal (in fact according to a 2000 study, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders).
Furthermore, whereas most articles mentioned the exact menu used by eating disorder sufferers when they were ill, fewer than 15 per cent gave a similar description of what sufferers ate after they had recovered. Similarly, a sufferer’s weight when they were ill was mentioned more often than their healthy weight.
In other words, the magazines are giving lip service to the threat of anorexia (much more than the threat of bulimia), glossing over the real dangers and, worst of all by far, providing step-by-step directions on how to be anorexic. That’s why they don’t cover the death rates: anorexia is only attractive to people who believe they will survive it.
In a cultural context where “you can never be too rich or too thin” is a pretty generally accepted statement, the anorexia patient is inevitably glamorized. Look how little she eats! Look how thin she is! In her personal essay on anorexia in Women En Large, Elise Matthesen remembers how, at her thinnest, she was used as a “good example” to the women and girls around her. “Why can’t you be thin like Elise?”
If you want to find glamorized pictures of anorexics, a simple web search will find you more than we can stand to look at. In fact, Google will complete “anorexia” to (among other things) “anorexia pictures” and “anorexia photos” In lieu of printing one of those, we thought we’d share the very peculiar insanity of this Photoshop contest done by Freaking News, a site that pays people money to manipulate existing news photos. In this one, the assignment was “Make images of celebrities and politicians suffering from anorexia, or people in the old paintings, being slim, skinny and anorexic. Feel free to use your victims for promoting products and services, or photoshop them on magazine covers.” The results vary from scary to downright terrifying. Here’s one finalist’s super-skinny version of a photo of Christina Aguilera.
Apparently, some people found the contest fun.
The magazines focus on anorexia because bulimia is far less sexy, whether it manifests in putting your fingers down your throat or in compulsive exercise. “Wasting away” has had a certain romantic tinge to for centuries. Somehow, we don’t suspect that Freaking News holds “modify these vomiting shots” contests.
The magazines want to sell copies, which they can do by 1) limiting their focus to the “glamorous” disorder; 2) decorating their scary statistics with menus and instructions; and 3) highlighting the disease rather than the recovery. Apparently, they don’t have a problem with selling long-term disability and death and disguising it as glamor.
Thanks to Dawn P. for pointing this out to us.