The Glamorization of Eating Disorders in Media

Fashion Week Lainey Keogh 5. Photography. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 28 Nov 2021.

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” 

This now retracted quote by former supermodel Kate Moss is a poignant representation of the mentality of many anorexic teenage girls across the world. This mentality has become normalized amongst many teenagers for a multitude of reasons and ideologies promoted in contemporary society. 

Teenage girls are increasingly developing eating disorders due to the negative impact social media has on body image, the glamorization of eating disorders in the media and television, as well as the lack of eating disorder education and awareness programs in schools.

The negative impact of social media on the body image of teenagers is one of the reasons behind eating disorders developing in teenagers. With TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media sites whose post-sharing algorithm favors images of people with skinny, ideal body shapes, any user of these apps is more likely to see the images of a certain type of body, typically photoshopped, that adhere to societal beauty standards, rather than unedited images that truly represent the large and unique varieties of body types. 

A 2011 study conducted by the University of Haifa saw that “[the] more time adolescent girls spend in front of Facebook, the more their chances of developing a negative body image and various eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and exaggerated dieting.” (Lopez Witmer). By constantly being fed a stream of ideal body images that are not necessarily accurate to real-life bodies, unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards push teenagers to adopt unhealthy ways of attaining those beauty standards, especially eating disorders, diet pills, appetite suppressants, and other means. Social media has led teenagers to be self-conscious about their bodies at young ages and inaccurately equate a skinnier body type to healthiness, fitness, and beauty, leading to unhealthy methods of achieving that body type. 

However, in addition to glamorizing certain body types and beauty standards, the media and television glamorize eating disorders and toxic diet culture themselves, which leads to an inaccurate portrayal and romanticization of these harmful behaviors. 

In many teen television shows, eating disorders are used as plot devices to progress character storylines that center on a “caterpillar to butterfly” theme, while conventionally attractive actresses portray suffering characters that depict eating disorders and weight loss as tools to become beautiful, avoiding the accurate depiction of the more unattractive and undesirable physical and psychological results of eating disorders, such as hair loss, malnutrition, and rotting of the teeth, among many other risks. 

Perhaps one of the most infamous cases of this phenomenon was in British teen television show Skins, where this type of inaccurate and glorified portrayal of anorexia was evident in the character Cassie. Her body issues and struggles with anorexia were glamorized, leading to “images of Cassie [being] used for “thinspo”, fans editing her picture next to pro-anorexia slogans riffing on the character’s dialogue, like “Keep Calm and Stop Eating Until They Take You To Hospital”.” (Leszkiewicz). 

In this specific show, anorexia was glamorized, portraying Cassie, an affluent, conventionally attractive girl, as an anorexic who used her eating disorder to both become and stay thin, propagating the myth that eating disorders make one more attractive, while promoting the rhetoric that thinness is equivalent to beauty in the minds of teenage viewers.

In television and the media that adolescent girls consume, these detrimental disorders are indirectly promoted through the omission of their horrors and immense health risks, it remains clear that the media portrayal of these disorders continues to be a significant factor in the development of eating disorders in teenage girls.

While the media propagates inaccurate portrayals of eating disorders, the education system does not make a significant enough effort to correct the glamorized image of eating disorders in the minds of its students, which is another factor contributing to the development of eating disorders in teenage girls. Mandatory eating disorder education allows schools to distribute accurate information on eating disorders and their health risks, no matter how unsightly or alarming they may be, to prevent the further establishment of eating disorders in students through preventive education. 

According to a 2017 study that tested the impact of a series of three 90-minute eating disorder prevention classes on 724 adolescents in Germany,  “[the] prevention program can be recommended to older adolescents where it resulted in increased knowledge on eating disorders and a decrease in eating disorder pathology.” (Gumz, et al.). This study illustrates that programs educating adolescents on eating disorders increase knowledge on the harm of eating disorders and dissuade older teenagers from adopting unhealthy eating habits and attitudes in the future, due to awareness of their dangers.

However, as these preventive programs are not required to be implemented in schools around the world, this allows teenagers to remain uneducated on the dangers of eating disorders, consequently increasing their eating disorder pathology, and, by association, their risk for developing eating disorders.

Due to the media glamorization of eating disorders, the negative impact of social media on body image, and the lack of eating disorder education in schools, teenage girls are developing eating disorders as a result. In modern society, the immersion of teenagers in noninclusive and inaccurate media, coupled with the lack of mechanisms to curb unhealthy media conditioning towards body image within schools, is a ticking time bomb. By avoiding the addressing of eating disorders and body image issues in girls, it allows dangerous rhetoric and attitudes regarding eating and health to be normalized throughout society, harming girls for generations to come. 

After all, Kate Moss eventually retracted her infamous quote, but negative body image and eating disorders cannot be so similarly or easily undone.