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Visual platforms like Instagram and apps such as Facetune are becoming more popular. Print/online magazines provide endless commentary on the physical attributes of women. So, it seems some people are asking does the media cause eating disorders?

Some may say that the pressure on people to “fix their flaws” and present ‘perfection’ can have a negative impact on body image.

With all this technology at our fingertips, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s been digitally altered as we scroll our news feeds.

Before we look in more depth at whether the media cause eating disorders, let’s go through some definitions of the more common eating disorders.

An overview of the more common eating disorders

These definitions come from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), a diagnostic manual used to assist mental health professionals in the diagnosis of mental health conditions. 

DISCLAIMER: Please do not use the information in this post to diagnose yourself or anyone else with an eating disorder.

If you’re concerned about yourself or someone else then please arrange to meet with a mental health professional. They will use their clinical judgement as to whether or not it would be appropriate to assess for a diagnosis.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by significantly low body weight for the individual’s height, age and developmental stage (body mass index (BMI) less than 18.5 kg/m2 in adults and BMI-for-age under fifth percentile in children and adolescents) that is not due to another health condition or to the unavailability of food.

Low body weight is accompanied by a persistent pattern of behaviours to prevent restoration of normal weight, which may include behaviours aimed at reducing energy intake (restricted eating), purging behaviours (e.g., self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives), and behaviours aimed at increasing energy expenditure (e.g., excessive exercise), typically associated with a fear of weight gain.

Low body weight or shape is central to the person’s self-evaluation or is inaccurately perceived to be normal or even excessive.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by frequent, recurrent episodes of binge eating (e.g., once a week or more over a period of at least one month).

A binge eating episode is a distinct period of time during which the individual experiences a subjective loss of control over eating, eating notably more or differently than usual, and feels unable to stop eating or limit the type or amount of food eaten.

Binge eating is accompanied by repeated inappropriate compensatory behaviours aimed at preventing weight gain (e.g., self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or enemas, strenuous exercise).

The individual is preoccupied with body shape or weight, which strongly influences self-evaluation. The individual is not significantly underweight and therefore does not meet the diagnostic requirements of Anorexia Nervosa.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by frequent, recurrent episodes of binge eating (e.g., once a week or more over a period of several months).

A binge eating episode is a distinct period of time during which the individual experiences a subjective loss of control over eating, eating notably more or differently than usual, and feels unable to stop eating or limit the type or amount of food eaten.

Binge eating is experienced as very distressing, and is often accompanied by negative emotions such as guilt or disgust.

However, unlike in Bulimia Nervosa, binge eating episodes are not regularly followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviours aimed at preventing weight gain (e.g., self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives or enemas, strenuous exercise).

What if I don’t have a diagnosis?

The above are the criteria which someone needs to meet in order to receive a diagnosis. However, it doesn’t mean that people without a diagnosis are not having difficulties in their relationship with food.

 

Orthorexia

This is not officially classified as an eating disorder in the ICD-11, so the definition below is taken from the Beat website.

Orthorexia refers to an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food. Food considered “pure” or “impure” can vary from person to person.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who subscribes to a healthy eating plan or diet is suffering from Orthorexia.

As with other eating disorders, the eating behaviour involved – “healthy” or “clean” eating in this case – is used to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, or to feel in control.

Someone using food in this way might feel extremely anxious or guilty if they eat food they feel is unhealthy.

What does the research say?

A number of studies have highlighted the links between media and social media use, and people’s views of their bodies. Research suggests that the more media and social media we consume, the more dissatisfied we become with our bodies.

In terms of the impact of media use on body image, I’ve experienced this first hand.

I had to take a break from looking at online magazine and newspaper articles, because I started to become more self-conscious of my body and feeling pretty negative towards it.

But not everyone who consumes media has an eating disorder

Yes, this is true and so we have to look at what else might be going on.

As a mental health professional, I try to take a broad view of the factors which might be involved in people developing mental health conditions.

The research suggests that there are factors which increase a person’s risk of developing mental health conditions such as eating disorders. 

Biological factors to developing a mental health condition

Genetics may play a part. Twin studies found that if one twin has a mental health condition then the other twin is 50% more likely to develop the same mental health condition.

In terms of gender, females are more likely to develop eating disorders than males. This may be because females are exposed to more messages about their bodies within families, culture, and their peer groups.

 

Having a physical health condition/disability can have an impact on someone’s mental health. It may be that the condition makes someone more conscious about their appearance in some way.

Stress response means how someone responds to stress. People who don’t respond well to stress may be more likely to develop mental health conditions.

Psychological factors to developing a mental health condition

Personality is developed when we are young and is thought to be fully-formed when we reach age 25.

Our personality is shaped by our interactions and relationships with others, together with our early life experiences.

 

Our attitudes and beliefs may also come from interactions with influential others when we’re younger, as well as our experiences.

We may develop certain attitudes and beliefs relating to ideals of beauty and our value in relation to our body size/shape.

Coping and social skills relates to our ability to cope in difficult situations, as well as our ability to interact with other people.

Lastly, if we have self-esteem difficulties this might affect the view we have of ourselves and our value. We may feel we need to look a certain way to be considered of value by others.

Social/Environmental factors to developing a mental health condition

In terms of family background, was the environment you grew up in nurturing and safe? Or, did it feel chaotic and unstable? You might have witnessed arguments in the family home. Perhaps your parents separated or you were brought up by extended family.

Adverse life events may also have brought about additional stress. This might have been in the form of physical or sexual abuse, bereavements, and/or witnessing violence.

Even if you experienced adverse events, some people say it’s how those events were responded to or dealt with that can make the difference. Did you have social support from anybody? Were your thoughts and feelings taken into account? Were you listened to and really ‘heard’?

Some people may not have had access to education when they were younger. Or, if you did, it may not have been a positive experience.

You might have experienced bullying. Perhaps the academic side was something you struggled with and you preferred the more practical ways of learning.

Socioeconomic status refers to whether money was tight in the home or whether things were financially stable. Was there food on the table? Did you have clean clothes/school uniform?

However, even if money was tight this does not necessarily equate to feelings of unhappiness. Other aspects of the environment may have made up for a lack of money.

It depends on how this was framed by those around you and how you perceived this. Did it cause you to feel ‘left out’ because your friends had the latest fashions/gadgets?

Lastly is substance abuse. Sometimes people resort to abusing substances as a way of coping with their situation. The substances help ‘shut their mind off’ and reduce any unpleasant feelings.

Substances might also be used to reduce the impact of mental health symptoms, although they end up making the symptoms worse.

The overlap between the three factors

Although these factors have been separated out whilst describing them, there’s actually a lot of overlap between the three as shown below.

Elements of one factor are likely to overlap into the other one or two factors.

For example, someone might abuse substances in response to experiencing adverse life events such as bereavements or abuse. This might then lead to physical health difficulties due to the damage caused by the substance abuse.

All of these difficulties combined might then increase the likelihood of someone developing a mental health condition.

So, does the media cause eating disorders?

With all this in mind, it would seem that there’s many factors which may increase the likelihood of someone developing an eating disorder. 

Based on the evidence I personally don’t believe the media cause eating disorders directly.

However, if some of the above factors are present then the consumption of media, and the way it’s interpreted by a person, might play a part in the development of an eating disorder.

It’s also worth noting that consumption of media might also help to maintain disordered eating and/or a negative body image. Taking a break from media and social media might be best, especially if someone is in recovery from an eating disorder.

Have you ever been affected by what you see on social media? Have you had to take a break away? Let me know your experiences in the comments.

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