The Media, Eating Disorders and Self-Worth

It's not enough to create the life you want unless you have the body to match. That's the adage most people live by in our society. Starvation, dieting and weight loss dominate a large swath of the mental time and energy of our daily lives. Even the most productive and successful people usually have a running food loop in their mind. To explore why maladaptive eating is so highly valued, it makes the most sense to understand what other values have slowly become worthless in recent decades. The daily pleasure of eating and the community of food has declined in importance, unless the food industry is your career. Youth and perceived immortality routinely trump the value of experience and knowledge. Any worthwhile political or social movement buckles under the weight of the media's choice of the news du jour. The substance and dialogue of our collective narrative are largely devoid of meaningful content in favor of celebrity gossip or diet tips. Even the more serious news reporting often emphasizes the need for lighter matters to shield us from the real concerns in the world. There is little focus on the meaning of our lives as an individual or as a whole. It is unclear whether there is inherent value in having an opinion, a voice or a community anymore or if they are just a means to an end. So the mastery of food and weight represents the apogee of personal identity almost by default. It's either a place holder while we wait for something of true significance to shape our self-image or a prolonged drug of the masses that lulls us into perpetual slumber.
If this were only the newest communal vice, maybe we could all just chuckle and move on, but there seems to be something insidious and more deeply disturbing underneath. The history of psychiatry reveals a series of psychosomatic illnesses which have primarily affected women--fainting spells and hysteria as the two most notable examples. These diagnoses were social constructs to pathologize, contain and, presumably, treat overwrought women who had no alternate emotional outlet in that era. How is it now that eating disorders often pick out extremely bright, driven and talented women and render them impotent? The media suggests that these illnesses are just a luxury of the well-off--just watch an episode of "Gossip Girl"--with nothing better to do than obsess about their weight and manipulate their food. Yet, across socioeconomic and ethnic groups, the personality traits that self-select for eating disorders suggest otherwise. Perfectionistic, diligent, hard-working. Self-sacrificing, empathic, engaging. Funny, self-deprecating, quick-witted. And always remarkably unaware of their strengths and talents.  Working with these women often feels like going to the hall of mirrors at an amusement park. No matter how much I reflect back the person that I see and know, all they can see is a distorted self-image. In the post-feminist world of supposed opportunity, these women seem primed to thrive and take advantage of what life has to offer. Yet, in the forty years since the feminist movement opened those doors, the incidence of eating disorders has skyrocketed. It feels too pat to imagine this is a coincidence. Has the influence of the media helped an entire society find a new way to contain and manage capable women in the useless pursuit of dieting and thinness? Eating disorders do seem like the current iteration of silencing women with psychopathology.
This is another instance where social phenomena and clinical acumen overlap. Effective treatment needs to undo the pervasive influence of media as much as the emotional and psychological cause of the disorder. That doesn't mean discussing the pros and cons of Us magazine. It does mean reassessing what gives value to a smart, capable woman in our society. Or what are the realistic goals a driven woman can aspire to. Or what it means to engage in the world without the constant fear and anticipation of personal judgment or sexual leering. Addressing these issues means directly questioning the world the media has shaped. Although that's a start, it's naive to think it's enough since we don't live in a bubble. Coming to terms with one's own place and value in the world will also mean questioning family, colleagues and peers: the immediate world around each of us. Patients who fully recover don't just stop their behaviors. Many people may eat relatively normally but still view food and weight as the most important part of their identity. Treatment that works has to help the patient recover her identity both personally and within her community. She needs to see herself outside of the hall of mirrors but also know that her value may still be seen through the prism of the media by many around her. It takes motivation and strength to persist in real recovery while the world still swirls around thinness. Recovery demands that one always pushes back against the tide of the media and strives to show one's true value. While everyone else just wants to lose weight.
If recovery involves taking a moral and philosophical stand against the perceived norm, it follows that the media, pursuit of thinness and eating disorders may be the closest thing we have to a social movement right now. With all of the current press about an anti-obesity campaign that largely ignores the complicity of big business and lax regulatory agencies, how can our national starvation escape without a mention? Michelle Obama placed her spotlight on childhood obesity but put her pre-teen daughter on a diet? The message cannot be more clear. The inherent danger of a widespread social belief that thinness is best leaves children with no other way to see themselves. The media has invaded the home and parents have made it acceptable to inculcuate children in this world view. And everyone just looks the other way. This will be the topic of the next post.


Media, Food and Weight-Overview

The media is meant to seem like benign, light entertainment to fill our days. But the magnitude of its influence on our lives is as unavoidable as it is insidious, especially when it comes to food, dieting and body image. It's not just that all actresses and models are thin so we want to be thin too. The media assumes we all know that being thin is the key to fame, popularity and success. In fact, it is the only way. The media does not act as if it dictates the social norms but rather lulls us into a state of mindlessness. How could Lindsay Lohan's last arrest not be supremely important? And, of course, she's wildly successful anyway. Because she is thin. You'd be completely out of touch--or worse, hopelessly lost--to believe otherwise. But then the media is much more than fashion, TV and movies. It's a philosophy and a social movement, a world view and a political ideology, and even a ubiquitous educational tool that shapes the way we see the world. Denying the existence of the media is like being an atheist. It's a personal choice but that doesn't eliminate the media from the world any more than denying god eliminates religion.

The media, perhaps more than anything else, taps into our true wishes and desires through expertly crafted images and messages that fill a huge void in modern life. Deep down, we all know the media did get it right. That's why it's so hard to resist. And, like any entity wielding such enormous power, the exeuction of its influence is solely a matter of exploitation. Just think of it. At any moment, people are reading the same magazines and watching the same movies and therefore striving for the same goals and to be like the same people. The role models--once limited to family, friends and perhaps a neighbor or teacher--now are universal. As the arbiter of cultural norms and ideals, especially for those affected most, adolescents and young adults, the media tells us exactly what really matters. And an industry has followed to monetize every aspect of our infatuation and continue to spread the word.
On an individual level, the road to social acceptance and personal success is lined with diet tips, new food fads and one central message: lose weight! By providing an inherently irrelevant yet alluring solution to the fear and isolation bred into our society, this industry has discovered infinite ways to distract us from the aimlessness and lack of personal identity that--literally--embodies our youth. Each airbrushed picture of an actress or model offers up the culturally sanctioned ideal, which each subculture and community attempts to slavishly recreate by searching for its own Lindsay Lohan or Lady Gaga. It's not only that these icons are unattainable but that following their every move serves as a kind of acceptable addiction that fills the void while providing an ethical and moral standard to guide us through life. It may seem banal to equate dieting with a reason to live, but that's truly what has come to pass. In no way does the media have a conscience for our social welfare. No, it's looking for what gets the most airtime and what sells. Thinner is better; starving is right; no weight is ever low enough; no diet is ever too radical; lose ten pounds and life will be perfect. 
The current and growing backlash against the media campaigns to normalize food and weight. But we can't all go back to a time when weight and food choice didn't dictate your place in the social hierarchy. A public health initiative to promote healthful eating only shows these young men and women how the establishment is hopelessly out of touch. People that age feel invincible and immortal. They are not cowed by long-term health consequences. Their fears are deeply rooted in finding an identity, somewhere they belong. The media taps into this longing with a quick, simple and supposedly easy solution. The old ads educating about the effects of smoking or drugs--and now about healthful eating--make sense to the middle-aged person in charge but don't touch an adolescent. "Lose ten pounds in a week. Look great for the summer!" or "Eat right. Get your fruits and vegetables every day. Healthy eating for a healthy life!" The only people who hear the latter message turn healthy eating into an identity of its own: orthorexia. For young women especially, the post-feminist era leaves too many choices, few realistic life paths and a paucity of successful and happy role models. But to control food, appetite and weight opens hidden doors in every part of life. Other women are impressed or envious. Men pay much more attention. People are willing to offer new opportunities, both professional and personal. Sadly, being thin, often at any cost, is transformative.
So eating less and losing weight do solve the problem, at least in the moment. A day spent not eating is a day lived well. Accomplishment for the day: 1000 calories, check. Your actions and your body do represent who you are. Your thoughts and feelings are extraneous--expendable items of daily life to be ignored or, when they break through, medicated away. Like it or not, this has become the norm for a generation raised on technology, quick and easy communication and domination of media in culture. Having some version of an eating disorder is a lifestyle, for many a choice, an identity and maybe even a career. It is a stamp of approval, the entrance into a coveted world of control inspiring envy in your peers. In many social circles, the misfit is the one who hasn't been on a diet, intentionally thrown up or taken diet pills. The young woman who orders chocolate cake for dessert when out with her friends inspires a world of gossip. Unless the whole group decided to have a sanctioned binge together. Because there is no viable alternative, an entire generation has turned to the media to answer many questions about life. And this is the result.    
As adolescence stretches past college to age 23, 25 or even 30, the media extends its scope even to young adults having children of their own. One generation passes this misguided sense of self on to the next like the secret family recipe or grandma's heirloom necklace or an inherited predisposition for diabetes. As the older generation fights the food industry and agribusiness, does anyone really think twenty-somethings are clamoring for organic produce and humanely-raised chickens? No, they're too busy throwing up the apple pie, Luna bar or handful of grapes. Something--an idea, social movement, national crisis--would have to replace the coveted role the media now plays in society. How else could the younger generation navigate the growing complexities of the interconnected, homogeneous world of the masses? How else to avoid the fate of just becoming a number? Where else can one find identity other than hitting the goal on the scale?
This introduction is meant to lay out the reality of food and weight in a media-centered world. I want to break this discussion down more specifically into a few components that focus more on the implications for the future. First, what does this mean for the value of eating disorders and disordered eating in our society? Second, how does the media politicize a world of thinness as a life goal? Third, has the media found a way to embed weight and food as something passed on to the next generation? Stay tuned.