The media’s influence on eating disorders and recovery

Defining media

The broadest definition of media is that it is all mass communication methods. Today, that includes films, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, websites, ezines, eBooks and, of course, all forms of social media.

Posts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest and other social platforms can have widespread effects among followers. Just ask any celebrity or influencer. Blogs and content aggregation sites like Buzzfeed and Reddit have a similar reach. The posts here are longer, but they feel similarly personal and create special connections with followers.

But does the media impact eating disorders? Some reports say no. For instance, in 2004 J. Holstrom conducted a meta-analysis on the available literature and found that the overall effect of media on body image was small.

Does it influence eating disorders?

Most research, however, suggests that media messages do contribute to the development and progression of disordered eating. In 2016 Lewallen and Behm-Morawitz found that teenage girls were more likely to crash diet if following “fitness inspiration” accounts. So far, studies have focused on teens and young women.

Experts note that research into other populations is needed, but it does seem that some general observations can be made. Personal accounts suggest that other population groups respond to the pressure of media messages in similar, destructive ways.

There are sites and accounts that are actively pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia, pro-steroid abuse or pro-binge eating. Other posts might not be overtly pro-ED, but they can still foster distorted thinking. The standards for body size and attractiveness can become very unrealistic. Experts and “gurus” can cross the line between promoting healthy eating and encouraging orthorexia.

Essentially, you’re alone with yourself and whatever you’re reading. When you go online, you have a lot more media at your fingertips and often anyone can leave comments on posts or articles. Unrealistic or dangerous eating and exercise habits can begin to feel normalised.

Comparing yourself with whatever ideal you see in front of you is far too easy. And, if you see others reaching life milestones, such as graduating from university, that you’ve missed due to your illness or time in treatment, it can also impact your recovery. You might feel bad about yourself and be tempted to act out on ED behaviours.

A Positive or Negative Influence

The good news is that, like most things, the power of the media can be used for good or evil. With eating disorders, this means the media can prevent as well as encourage their development and can foster recovery just as much as illness.

The positive influence of the media on ED recovery and general body image seems to be growing. For every photoshopped magazine spread of a celebrity, there are articles showing what they looked like before the airbrushing. The use of filters in online photos is now well understood.

In general, although there are still a lot of dishonest, idealised representations of beauty in the media, there are more honest representations too. There are also more essential discussions about honest and dishonest representations. This is exciting when we see it happening with a public figure, on social platforms and in other media, but it’s even more encouraging when we see it with someone who is proudly in ED recovery.

One of Our Own?

In an article in Glamour Magazine, eating disorder survivor De Elizabeth explains how social media contributed to her active illness and to her recovery. For her, LiveJournal, in particular, fed both a “dangerous appetite for thinness” and was where she finally found her “safe haven”.

Elizabeth reports on other survivors saying the same thing. She quotes Jenny (as the founder of an ED recovery group on LiveJournal is identified) as saying she wanted to create a space where sufferers “could make honest connections”.

In 2016 the British Journal of Social Psychology published research that analysed transcripts from online groups. Online conversations, they discovered, helped them to build a new, “shared recovery identity”. Many individuals in internet-based recovery groups say that they can be truthful in a way that is only possible online. That keeps them accountable and provides inspiration for other people dealing with an eating disorder.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, general and social media can do both a lot of harm and a lot of good. Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter have initiated policies to ban content that is blatantly pro-eating disorder. Instagram has gone even further. Now, if you search any pro-ED terms on the app, a message appears on your screen asking if you need help with the issue.

The actions that these platforms have taken is helpful, but we can’t avoid ever seeing messages that we don’t want to. What we can do is take action to minimise our exposure. Be aware that the dangerous content is there but choose to follow messages that are good for you.

Decide who you want to follow, and what advertisements and accounts you need to block. Fill your feed with inspirational people of all shapes and sizes, who are doing great things. Importantly, remember that online connections are not substitutes for offline interactions. When you’re battling an eating disorder you need as much support, on every platform, as possible.