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.