Does the Media Contribute to Eating Disorders?

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The Influence of Mass Media on Eating Disorders

Do the media contribute to eating disorders? Well, today, the influence of the mass media is definitely ubiquitous. In fact, according to Melvin DeFleur and Everette Dennis, coauthors of Understanding Mass Media: A Liberal Perspective, in the age of technology, “The mass media are present in one form or another in virtually every society,” with only “a few pockets of population in remote areas where one can find people who have no access to mass communications” (p. 3).

Given their ubiquity, the media, most notably television, magazines, and movies, influence not only people’s perception of reality but also their personal decisions, from how they dress to how they wear their hair to the cars they drive and even the brand of deodorant they use. One must wonder, though, in view of their considerable persuasiveness, if media organizations often have a more insidious impact upon human lives, however unintentional that might be. After all, they influence humankind’s perception of beauty, and since this is the case, one might very well conclude that, yes, it’s true; the media does contribute to eating disorders.

The Media’s Influence on Female’s Perception

In 1942, in one of the first studies of its kind, females who regularly listened to radio daytime serials (the forerunners of television soap operas) were asked their reasons for listening to such programming. Although some women said they experienced emotional release and/or gained invaluable advice, for example, regarding how to deal with family issues, the majority of the respondents said they listened for two main reasons: They identified with the heroine of the drama, and they engaged in wishful thinking. In other words, they wanted to be like the heroines, and they wished they could lead such exciting lives. (DeFleur & Dennis, 2002)

Eating Disorders and the Modern Mania for Slimness

The majority of individuals who suffer from eating disorders are female, a tendency many sociologists attribute to the social pressure placed upon women to be thin. Interestingly, however, as noted by Charles Zastrow and Karen Kirst-Ashman, coauthors of Understanding Human Behavior and Social Environment, thinness was not always in vogue. In fact, until 25 or 30 years ago, women were considered more attractive when they were a bit rounder and fuller; but today’s cultural ideal “is pencil slimness, and, according to advertisements and fashion magazines, even mature women should look like adolescent boys” (p. 330).

The Media’s Slender Ideal Contributes to Anorexia and Bulimia

According to Sharon Brehm, Saul Kassin, and Steven Fein, coauthors of Social Psychology, the “slender ideal projected in the media” is the main reason why more women than men suffer from potentially dangerous eating disorders, namely anorexia and bulimia. As proof, the authors say numerous studies have demonstrated that when young women see magazine ads or television commercials featuring ultra-thin models, they become dissatisfied with their own bodies; yet when young women view “neutral materials,” they do not experience the same feelings of dissatisfaction (p. 313).

Eating Disorders and the Media’s “Beautiful People”

Zastrow says there are many factors that play a role in the development of an eating disorder, and though these factors can differ from individual to individual, most people with eating disorders typically share certain commonalities:

  1. They have low self-esteem.
  2. They desire perfection.
  3. They are intolerant of any perceived flaws.
  4. They compare themselves with others and invariably conclude, “I’m just not good enough.”

Considering these commonalities, it’s easy to understand how when a female with an already fragile sense of self watches a television show and sees ultra-slim women in the starring roles, or she opens a magazine like Seventeen, Teen Vogue, Glamour and sees ultra-slim women leading glamorous lives, she invariably compares herself and concludes, “I’m just not good enough.” And what makes the pressure to be thin even greater, of course, is the way magazines like Star and People constantly ridicule female celebrities for gaining even a little weight, regardless of how much better they might look.

In conclusion, in light of the sociological evidence, it’s apparent that, yes, indeed the media do contribute to eating disorders and, given their ubiquity, will continue to do so for a long, long time to come . . . well, that is, unless society’s ideal for female attractiveness reverts back to that of the 1950s when “rounder and fuller” was in vogue.


  1. Brehm, S., Kassin, S. & Fein, S. (2002) Social Psychology. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
  2. DeFleur, M. & Dennis, E. (2002) Understanding Mass Media: A Liberal Perspective. New York: Houghton Mifflin Compan
  3. Zastrow, C. & Kirst-Ashman, K. (1995) Understanding Human Behavior and Social Environment. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers