How Our Diet-Obsessed Marketing Culture Fueled My Eating Disorder

October 27th 2014

20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some juncture in their lives, and yet we often turn a blind eye to this serious medical condition. In fact, many of our day-to-day actions and attitudes feed into the eating disorder-mentality, without us realizing the triggers. 

We are well-aware of how the media portrays the "perfect woman" as underweight and over-stylized. And yet, despite an occasional fuss over it, little has changed. Businesses are, at their very core, fueled by consumers, and despite our collective disapproval of this whittled away image of the female form, we continue to buy into it.

So what incentive do marketers have to change things? Especially considering that these ads perpetuate another ever-growing industry: the diet craze, which rakes in $20 billion annually in the U.S. Like it or not, we have accepted these messages and images as a way of life.

If tomorrow women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business - Dr Gail Dines

Now, I happen to love Tina Fey, and enjoyed reading her book 'Bossypants' for the laughs and anecdotes, but her section on Photoshop really made me take pause. She states:

Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues? I do. I think that we will soon see a rise in anorexia in women over seventy. Because only people over seventy are fooled by Photoshop...People have learned how to spot it...As long as we all know it's fake, it's no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

All jokes aside, Tina Fey has a point: time after time we have been alerted that models and actors are almost always photoshopped. But she also misses the larger point: it doesn't matter if the images are real - it's the message they invoke that proves harmful. A message that screams to every passersby: "Your body is not good enough and never will be." Which is exactly what runs through the head of someone suffering from an eating disorder. They keep pushing themselves to reach an idealized weight or look that never materializes. It is always a point on the horizon, and never a reality, just like those magazine images we see everyday.

Having recovered from an eating disorder myself, I can recall how superhuman I felt being able to forego eating while also running everyday. Throughout this period in my life, it was never other girls I compared myself to - it was an idealized image of who I could be. Who I yearned to be and though I was not cognizant of it at that time, it was the exact image that almost every commercial or advertisement plays to. They say "you can look like this if you just buy *blank* product" and Anorexia Nervosa worked the same way with me.

The weight-loss industry continues this trend with its promises to make you thinner and consequently, happier. Although not every diet promotes weight-loss over health, let's be honest - a broad number do. I understand the concern around weight gain, considering that 32.2% of men and 35.5%of women are clinically obese, but the diet craze does not always help this problem. Eating a balanced diet and exercising is the key to a healthy lifestyle, but instead of endorsing these paths, the weight-loss industry often profits from our society's impatience, touting quick fixes like diet pills as opposed to changing what we eat. 

A real woman (forget curves, skinniness and muscles) is whatever the hell she wants to be

Despite how widespread and serious eating disorders are, many people do not seek help for it, often due to societal stigma. To this day, it still scares me to admit to people that I had an eating disorder, fearing that people would judge me or think I was "unstable" or "crazy." One part of this was the ongoing stereotype I had in my head of someone with an eating disorder: an angsty teenager looking to gain attention or become thinner to impress the cute boy in class. But that is not what an eating disorder is. And I'm sad that I ever thought that - because even those so-called "angsty" teens are going through something much bigger than a plea for attention or a desire to become thinner: they're suffering from a psychiatric illness.

As a whole, mental illnesses are unfairly looked down upon in society, associated with  character "weakness," and eating disorders are especially a victim to this perception. This viewpoint, however, is not just overly critical, it's scientifically wrong. Neuro-imaging studies have proven that when someone suffers from an eating disorder, their brain activity changes. Research has further revealed that reward centers of the brain and the centers related to taste often are distorted or altered in people who have or do suffer from Anorexia Nervosa, explaining why their brains continue to push them towards restricting their diet and pursuing weight loss over all other instincts. This is often why the recovery for eating disorders relates similarly to those for substance abuse - your brain and your body becomes addicted to the eating disorder, it becomes a whole part of yourself that takes over. Sadly, the emotional, physical and physiological difficulties in recovering from that are often not as publicized as it should be. Because like any addiction, it is a recovery process that involves trained professionals and a treatment plan.

Also similarly to an addiction, genetics plays a hand in eating disorders, determining approximately 50% to 80% of a person's risk of developing an eating disorder. Another important factor is personality traits - with people prone to perfectionism or anxiety more at risk for an eating disorder. The other important factor, and more importantly, what we as a society are in control of, is environment, and what a child or adult is exposed to. For instance, if someone predisposed to having an eating disorder never goes on a diet, they will most likely never develop an eating disorder. So while Photoshopping and diet fads may not lead every single person to develop an eating disorder, they still prove to be a threat to many individuals (in addition to negatively impacting any human being's body image overall).

Despite all these scientifically proven facts, the stigma surrounding mental health is alive and well in society. People still hold on to the belief that eating disorders are self-inflicted (similar to views on substance abuse). But that superficial misunderstanding completely negates this real, cognitive illness. Saying someone is "doing it for attention" or "just to be skinnier" is trivializing a serious and life-threatening disease. Our collective inability to face this problem head-on, and educate ourselves and others about it, makes matters worse. We need more people to stand up and share their story, to show that an eating disorder does not define who they are, just like no illness defines an individual. The sooner that happens, the sooner we will be able to treat eating disorders the way we treat any other biological disease -- by rallying behind those affected and eliminating the root cause. 

 Which bit would you alter first? Answer: The culture (comic)