Behind the Headlines: Does the media fuel eating disorders?

Inaccurate media portrayals of conditions such as bulimia and anorexia are fuelling the prevalence of eating disorders, according to news reports.

Body criticism 'made normal' (Photograph: iStockphoto)
Body criticism 'made normal' (Photograph: iStockphoto)

The Royal College of Psychiatrists' eating disorders section said there is a growing body of research that shows the media plays a part in the development of eating disorder symptoms.

This is particularly the case in adolescents and young people, the college said.

The media propagates unobtainable body ideals and the acceptability of dieting, leading to lowered mood, body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms, said the college.

'Although biological and genetic factors play an important role in the development of these disorders, psychological and social factors are also significant,' said Dr Adrienne Key of the college's eating disorders section.

How does it portray disorders?
The Royal College of Psychiatrists' eating disorders section said the media portrays eating disorders as mild conditions, rather than as serious mental illnesses.

A significant proportion of articles portray dieting, body image perfection and plastic surgery as means to enhance self-esteem.

This is in contrast to a 'dearth' of articles focusing on emotional and personal development for healthy self-esteem, said the college.

'Body critical' articles target individuals - often celebrities - for being physically imperfect, normalising body criticism as acceptable, it added.

What should change?
The college called for an end to the use of underweight models in the mass media, and for a use of more diverse models. It said that a specific 'Kitemark' should be added to digitally manipulated images to raise awareness of the practice.

Susan Ringwood, chief executive of eating disorders charity Beat, said the charity recognised the powerful influence of the media.

'We know how vulnerable some people at risk of eating disorders can be to its visual images in particular.'

She added: We welcome this call to action from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. We know there is more that can be done to make that influence a positive one, and adopting the recommendations of the college's statement would be an important step.'

Informing Patients
  • Research shows media portrayals are increasingly linked to the development of eating disorders in young people.
  • Eating disorders are serious mental disorders.
  • Psychiatrists call for editorial guidelines to make clear to consumers when images have been manipulated.

Royal College of Psychiatrists Online 2010

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