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Media Fights Back against Anorexia

Media Fights Back against Anorexia

At a glance:

  • This spring France put a ban on employing underweight fashion models.

  • Consequences: six months in prison and an $82,000 fine.

  • The media alone does not cause eating disorders, but can influence pre-existing ones.

  • On a college campus, 58% of students felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83% that dieted for weight loss, only 44% were of healthy weight.

Summer means different things to everyone. To many college students it means kicking back and enjoying the sun, yet for some it means a season of body-shaming and despair, yearning for the perfect beach-ready body.

It’s hard to miss the never-ending sea of bikini-body propaganda spreading through the media this time of year. For the anorexic college student, this media only feeds the mental illness.

According to a survey of nearly 200 college students published by The Nutritional Journal, 58 percent felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83 percent that dieted for weight loss, only 44 percent were of healthy weight.

The Department of Public Health conducted a study demonstrating that anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, and that, when left untreated, eating disorders can lead to permanent physical damage ranging from hair loss to damage to the heart, osteoporosis, and the inability to conceive.

A similar study by The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders showed that 20 percent of people suffering from anorexia die prematurely due to the side effects of the disease, including suicide and heart attacks.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and a suicide rate that is 50 times higher than that of the general population.

Who’s to blame? The media, right?

Therese Waterhous, president and owner of Willamette Nutrition Source in Corvallis, gives insight on the matter.

"It is not necessarily the fault of the media that people develop eating disorders. Eating disorders occur due to a complex interplay of genetic predisposition, neurobiology, and environmental factors."

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (NAANAD) states that nearly 70 percent of adolescent girls claim magazine images influence their ideals of a perfect body. "Pro-anorexia" forum-users post about watching fashion shows and skimming through magazines for "thinspiration."

Although the media is surely no help, it goes a lot deeper than just the glossy pages of a magazine.

That’s not to say that the media plays no role in the road to eating disorders.

“If a young woman already hates her body, promoting unrealistic images is only going to uphold the ‘thin ideal’ and make matters worse,” Waterhous said. “College students are often hard on themselves.”

The media may not be 100 percent at fault, but in some countries the fashion industry is starting to take a stand.

Just this spring, France put a ban on employing underweight fashion models, guaranteeing modeling agencies and producers who break this law up to six months in prison and an $82,000 fine.

Agencies now have to produce a medical report showing that their models have maintained a healthy mass-to-height ratio. The law also indicates that any Photoshop alteration of models’ bodies would have to be mentioned or that company will be in violation.

So what is considered underweight?

According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, a healthy body-mass-index, or BMI, is anywhere from 18 to 24 percent.

What does this mean?

“People who suffer from eating disorders often tend to seek out sports or professions that idealize thinness. Being an underweight long-distance runner, for example, or modeling. Those fields both act as ‘safe havens’ for the individual, because it’s socially acceptable to be underweight in those situations,” said Waterhous.

In the same way that agencies used to protect ill models from facing their eating disorders, agencies in France are now able to protect models from feeling like they need to be thinner.

Oliver Veran, a neurologist and legislator who championed the anorexia measure, told the New York Times, "It's not just about protecting the models but also teenagers, because this body-image pressure also affects them and contributes to the emergence of eating disorders and tendencies to eat less and less."

Another expert, Marisol Touraine, a health minister of France was quoted, "It's important for fashion models to say that they need to eat well and take care of their health, especially for young women who look to the models as an aesthetic ideal."

Waterhous agrees that France’s new law was a good move.

“If these students are seeing more realistic images, they are likely to be less hard on themselves.”

Several members of Oregon’s own fashion community have strong feelings about the issue. Portland hair and makeup artist Emily Mazour is excited about the new law, and thinks the impact will be significant.

“This bill is reaching so much global awareness that other countries will have no choice but to submit to these standards with or without laws within their countries,” said Mazour. “It just makes sense to choose healthy models.”

Fashion designer Oscar Lopez, featured as Portland Fashion Week’s 2014 Emerging Designer, has been influenced as well.

“I don't make size zero samples anymore because that is just not reasonable for a 16-20-year-old nowadays. I want my models to look real, and most of all, I want them to look happy.”

There are always two sides to any social legislation. Jeff Wong, attorney by day and fashion photographer by night, looks at the law with an objective eye.  

“There are lots of aspects with living where laws have been enacted to protect people from themselves. We used to ban alcoholic beverages, and you can't buy opiates without a prescription. You can't ride a motorcycle without a helmet in most states. There are always two sides with social legislation. It's always controversial. Eating disorders unfortunately affect minors who aren't allowed to make a lot of their decisions.”

Although underweight models are still appearing in magazines across the globe, more and more companies are deciding to substitute “normal” looking models for the ultra thin. The research by Kai-Yu Wang, a marketing professor at Brock’s Goodman School of Business, shows that fashion brands can do this without impacting either the model's attractiveness rating or the product evaluation.    

The media is there to entertain and, yes, sell things. Don't cringe at the thought of having to put on that swimsuit this summer. Let go of impossible ideals, celebrate uniqueness, and enjoy the sun-kissed days ahead.

Featured in AVARI Magazine -- Video and Photos

Featured in AVARI Magazine -- Video and Photos