Eating Disorders: How the Media Glamorizes Anorexia

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.

Christina Aguilera slimmed down to absurdity

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.

eating disorders, anorexia,bulimia, glamour, media, weight loss, diet, body image, women’s magazines, feminism, Body Impolitic

27 thoughts on “Eating Disorders: How the Media Glamorizes Anorexia

  1. Glad to see your post. As a former bulimic, I found this article fascinating and sent it on to Laurie and Debbie. Further, the focus of coverage on eating disorders has remained consistent over time. One catalyst for my bout with bulimia some 25 years ago, started in my mid-20s, recovered by 30, was a magazine article about eating disorders. As I recall, this article also focused on anorexia over bulimia and mentioned health risks, but focused more on the behavior than its effects.

    My personal trigger for the disordered behavior was less an obsession with my weight as the combined stresses of: a divorce, a new profession, long-term side effects of Depo-Provera which resulted in no periods for 16 months together with a weight gain of 10-15 pounds. Certainly, the sudden weight gain was why I started purging, but the other stressors were definite factors, and if I’d not read that article, it would never have occurred to me to purge as a method of weight control. I don’t fault the doctor who put me on Depo-Provera, which was not yet approved as a birth control method. I’d had two reconstructive, reproductive surgeries in less than 3 years and he, quite rightly, wanted to shut down that part of my system long enough for it to fully heal. I doubt that either of us anticipated the 2 1/2 years of side effects from six months of dosage.

    I am ever grateful for the recommendation that I read Kim Chernin’s “The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness” during my recovery. That recommendation came from either Laurie or Debbie, but I can’t recall which of you suggested it to me. That book, more than anything else, helped me to rethink my perceptions about my body and my relationship with it. I think the book is perhaps more timely today as our media-driven culture is constantly presented with distorted information and images about health, weight and body shape. That being said, have you considered putting together a recommended reading list?

  2. Yes, yes, yes! This is exactly what I have been trying to say in regards to the Italian billboards featuring an anorectic. The face of a 68-pound emaciated woman is not always the face of an eating disorder. Bulimia is three to four times as common, yet where are the billboards showing a woman hanging her head over a toilet and wiping vomit from her mouth? Somehow, the image of a bulimic isn’t as sexy as that of an anorectic.

    Go to any pro-ana site, and you will find scads of young girls asking for advice on how they can “catch” anorexia or “become” anorexic. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time at these sites, both as a disordered person and as a recovered person who uses them for academic research, and not once have I encountered someone asking for advice on how to “become” bulimic.

  3. I’m a student of Pf.Rebecca Jenisson at Kyoto Seika University,Japan. Laurie-san,do you remembere me?
    I’m interested in women’s body image and how it’s distorted in media because I’ve been suffering from bulimia for many years.
    So, this post was very interesting.

    I feel that many coverages about body image and helth are glamarizing anorexia,too.
    For example, look at YouTube. There’re many anorexic videos and they say it’s warnig against ” you can’t be too thin to be sexy”. However,I couldn’t help feeling those videos are givinge tinge of admiration to anorexia.
    And compared to those many anorexic videos, those of bulimia is far less in number.
    Because binge and purge,or especially compulsive eating leads to obese,and it is taken “ugly”.

    I worry If these situations make kind of hierarchy even inside of the ED sufferers, I think it’s so sad and can’t help feeling anger.

  4. Dear Dawn and Lizzy,

    Deb and I are going to have a meeting about “future stuff” for the blog and the website in November. A reading list will definitely be part of the conversation. In the meantime, the list is a surprisingly good start.

    Dear Ryoko-san,

    How nice to hear from you. Of course I remember you. I think you are correct in your comments on the hierarchy of ED and you are very right to be angry.

    And this kind of hierarchy tends to make the suffering of bulimics much less visible.

  5. Those photos from Freaking News were disturbing. I liked how they put in ads for an eating disorder center like, “Well we put ads for an eating disorder center, look see, we’re being understanding!”

    Clearly they think the whole thing is a joke. They’re almost as tasteless as I mean, pretty darn close.

  6. I think it is a really interesting point that was brought up by Rachel regarding the public view of bulimia. It does have that stigma and the only time you seem to hear about it in the media is when some comedian is making a joke about some model. Who knows does it have to do with that anorexia is about not allowing yourself to have anything….maybe in some f*&% up way that illusion of control is respected? Where as with bulimia it may be seen as indulging because of the actual behavior or flow of the disease? Who knows, but one thing is for certain…it’s disgusting how people use this serious issue that has really impacted many people’s life’s including my own family, use it as a topic of humor…it surely should not be treated that way.

  7. hi im alyx,
    i have anerexia (im not sure if i spelled that rite)
    everyone thinks its just about people trying to get skinny, thats NOT the case. i have had my eating disorder for 5 years and i have seen 3 friends die from it. it shouldent be glamorised because more and more people are dieing and haveing this body distortion that “normal” people do not have. you should try to help them not glamorise it at all.
    if you want me to answer any questions you can e-mail me.

  8. If you think Christina looks, how shall i put it, ‘fiiiit’ in the above picture than you must be delirious.
    How an earth did icons and public role models become associted with stick thin people tottering around with clothes that simple fall off them?

    I believe women look their best with a fully filled body; surely health should be prioritised over looks? My boyfriend certainaly doesnt complain about my curvy body!

  9. hi my name is keira and i’ve recently noticed that i am increasingly losing weight and my friends and family have also noticed and started saying things to me about it. The thing is im doing an assignment on bulimia and anorexia at school and i know the signs so i think i know how to hide it. i know i need help but im too scared because im afraid it will just blow up in my face, i’ve gone from being 65kg to being between 48 and 53kg i eat alot but only every few days then i exercise i feel depressed and the media doesn’t help at all. What im trying to get at here is the girls that do it for attention u need to take a look at these girls that r really suffering its hard enough also without the critics out there, blame the media they make this look “good” and the models plus size models are just as gorgeous. I need help i realise that and girls need to kn ow its not whats on the outside but whats on the inside- short, tall, fat, thin ur gorgeous no matter what
    thanks keira

  10. Dear Keira,

    It was brave of you to write. It is really hard to deal with anorexia. Beauty comes in all sizes but with all the pressure out there it can be very hard to see. You do need to get help – this isn’t something you can deal with alone. I understand your fear of it’s “Blowing up in your face” but that fear will make you silent and that’s a bad idea. Hiding it will only make things worse, as I’m sure you know. My experience is that things change when you talk. If there is an adult in your life you trust, parent, school counselor, friend you should talk to them about it.

    You give your weight in kgs, so I assume you’re not in the US. If you let me know where you are I’ll try to find some helpful resources for you.

  11. Hi im 17 years old and i have anorexia nervosa…i start it when i was 15 …i was 180 pounds …now im 115 …and i still feel like 180…i’m never happy with the way i look…and i always want 2 lose more… i’m trying 2 help my self but is just 2 hard… i live in Puerto rico and theres not much help here…when i eat i have nigthmares ..i see my self fat and i wake up to go 2 the bathroom and… you know the rest… Im not happy …but i dont talk 2 anyone about this…im sick …and i’m crying outloud 4 HELP HELP HELP HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!…. i need some one to help me please!!! ….. i dont want 2 die like this….HELP !!!!!!…I CANT STOP Felling guilty when i eat ….i dont want to eat , i dont want 2 b fat BUT I DONT WANT 2 DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SOMEONE HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Dear Adriana,

    It sounds like you are having a very hard time and need help fast.

    Here are two web pages with good lists of helpful phone numbers you can call any time for free.

    It was brave of you to write. Dealing with anorexia is really hard, but it’s something you need to do and you are worth it. Feeling guilty when you eat is really awful. With all the pressure out there, it’s hard to realize or remember that beauty comes in all sizes. My experience is that things change when you talk. If there is an adult in your life you trust, parent, school counselor, friend, you should talk to them about it. And you can call the numbers at the links above. I hope you’ll do it really soon.

    I’m also posting my answer to the blog but I wanted to email you privately as well. Please answer me if you think it will be helpful. I will be thinking about you.

    Very Best,


  13. Thank you so much for having this up… The media does focus a lot on anorexia, and my shrink lent me a book that she thinks will help with my bulemia. The book is “Life without Ed” by Jenni Schaefer and Thom Rutledge… Jenni had an eating disorder, and overcame it, and this book is written in a way to help those with an anorexia or bulemia by using experiences with therapy, etc etc.

    I’m just starting it, and it’s hard work, but I thought that it might be able to help some other people struggling like I am.

  14. The worst thing about the media is that they make even the most educated and mature women feel like they need to be on a diet. I am neither young, nor am I in danger of going on a radical diet… however, that doesn’t mean I WISH I could look like those girls on tv or in the magazines. I eat a healthy diet and live an active lifestyle. I am not thin. I’m not fat, either, although the BMI (body mass index) says I am nearly obese. Ha! I look good. My husband agrees. The BMI is telling these girls they’re fat. It’s not just the media. My doctor agrees that I am healthy. She also agrees that in my case, the BMI is wrong.

    But why do I feel so ugly? Is it because everywhere I look, I am reminded of what I’m not? Reminded of what I would NEVER be able to look like, even if I hired a team of plastic surgeons? No matter how high my self esteem gets, I can always count on the media to bring it back down. For 28 years, the media has told me I’m not good enough. I am scared to have children. I am aware that teenage girls (and boys) have all these “cool” little clubs and sayings. Emo (cutters), Thinspo (thinspiration, anorexics). The thinspirations idiots say they don’t support anorexia or bullemia, yet they tell you all about how to do it saying that if you do it their way (eating just enough to stay conscious) that you aren’t anorexic. Ha!

  15. hwllo i am doing a project on anorexia and i was hoping that you could help me out find some good facts you know get down deep and see whats going on with the world to day many thaxs!

  16. Having debated and argued about how the media is damaging to girls and women. I have come to the conclusion that rather than yelling at a brick wall (mainstream media) that cannot hear me, to instead educate and raise awareness. Just like with this article you’ve posted – it encourages discussion.

    The most disturbing trend I have noticed is the pro-anamia or pro-ana sites where people who are afflicted with this deadly illness can get little tips and support on doing it better.

    We have to help put armor on our girls – so they can deflect these messages.

    I am currently doing an art exhibit with an artist friend – we have been collaborating on “Body Politics” – which is basically art about body image. I’ve learned a lot through my art and hope that I can help spread the message too.

  17. Hi.
    Very interesting discussion. Thank you for having it.

    I came upon this sight whilst looking for some answers to a dilemma I have.

    I am a “recovered” bulimic who has recently put on some weight (BMI has just gone over 25).
    I have avoiding both watching my weight closely and thinking about food for about 8 years (this did help me in my recovery) but now the excess weight is making me very anxious.

    I would like to loose it but am terrified that, if I think about loosing weight too much, I will slip back into full eating disorder behaviour.

    Does anyone have any advise for me? Note that I already do eat healthily.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi, Sue,

      First of all, congratulations to you for recovering! That’s hard work and I hope you’re proud of yourself.

      Second, I have a few pieces of advice for you, but before I give them, I want to say this: You are beautiful exactly as you are, whatever your BMI might happen to be. I know this without seeing you, but if I saw you, i would know it even better.

      Second, if you are anxious, that’s important. Exercising and movement are better for your body than controlling food intake. They might change your BMI or they might not, but they will help with the anxiety and help you feel better about yourself.

      Third, don’t be shy to get professional help or to go to a recovering bulimia support group (or find one on line). Look for someone or a group that is positive about everyone’s bodies and that doesn’t focus on BMI or specific weight issues. Getting help and support from people who want you to be well can be very important.

      Good luck to you!

  18. when i was anorexic i didnt want to look at myself because i was scared of what i might see.
    but now with a little help from family and doctors and my very caring boyfriend who helped me through it so much. i did get well, i may not eat as much as a normal 16 yr old girl should, but i am still well (:

    this is just a little something to prove that you can be beautiful without being thin.

  19. I can’t figure out how this works in people. Do anorexixcs look in the mirror and see themselves really fat, and are obssesed by the idea that they are over-weight? I believe that promoting all this skiny models and the great unbalance between the average person (which sadly is now represented by over-weighy McDonalds and KFC regulars) and idealistic “next top model” figures are the main reasons for this kinds of problems.

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