By Marie Haka
“I used to look at fashion magazines and pictures on the Internet to purposefully compare myself to people that were skinnier than me, to motivate myself to lose weight,” said an anonymous college student, who would diet, purge and starve herself in an attempt to attain the unreal body standards she saw portrayed in film and the fashion industry.
She is not alone in her struggle. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) estimates that nearly 10 million women and 1 million men in the United States are affected by anorexia and bulimia. Millions more are affected by binge eating disorder, characterized by compulsive overeating. And still more people have body image insecurities, even when they do not develop into full-blown eating disorders.
According to NEDA, body image is the way people see themselves and how they feel about their bodies. Body image issues have been put under the spotlight this week as events are held around the nation and right here on campus in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which was established in 1987. This year the week began this week on Sunday.
Dr. Susan Gulbe Walsh and Alexis Karris, pre-doctoral intern, are counseling psychologists at the UC Santa Cruz Student Health Center. They have organized events to be held in the Student Health Center and around campus this week.
While the two recognize that all segments of the population are affected by body image issues, they also acknowledge that college-aged people experience an even higher prevalence of body image disorders. Gulbe Walsh explained that college students may be especially susceptible to body image issues.
“College students are generally in a very specific developmental stage of their life, and that often includes a struggle with identity issues,” Gulbe Walsh said. “Body image issues and eating disorders, whether they are severe or not so acute — at the core of them I see identity issues.”
Karris agreed that college students struggle with issues that may lead to stress and negative body image. These include making major life choices, often for the first time, and pressure from the media to appear thin. Added to this is the introduction of the cafeteria system and irregular eating and sleeping schedules. The result is a potentially harmful combination.
*Body Image and the Mass Media*: Counselors and professionals in the body image field point to the mass media as one contributing factor in body image disorders. Lon Stromnes, co-founder of the Body Image Anonymous Support group in Los Gatos, addresses Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), the preoccupation with an imagined defect in appearance that causes distress and other body image issues. The mass media has a habit of exalting a narrow standard of beauty. The “Hollywood image” undoubtedly affects how many people view themselves, Stromnes said.
“Hollywood and Madison Avenue have always glamorized the ‘look of perfection’ as the norm or certainly the goal for happiness,” Stromnes said. “They distort the truth and make false claims about where one really finds happiness and success.”
According to NationMaster.com, a website that tracks statistics about the American population, the average American watches 28 hours of television per week. In addition, images from film, music, magazines, computers and billboards besiege the average American on a daily basis.
A recent report from the American Psychological Association (APA), “Sexualization of Girls is Linked to Common Mental Health Problems in Girls and Women,” documented that the sexual objectification of females is widespread in most forms of media, including television, music videos, song lyrics, magazines, movies, video games and the Internet. Researchers found that this exposure leads to a number of negative consequences that include cognitive and emotional disturbances; mental and physical health problems, such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression, and disruption of healthy sexual development.
“It is estimated that at least 2 to 3.5 percent of Americans have body image disorders or BDD,” Stromnes said.
Several organizations have confirmed these trends and intend to do something about them. Lynn Grefe is the CEO of National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), a non-profit organization that provides support to those affected by eating disorders and acts as a catalyst for prevention, treatment, access to quality health care and research. She has noticed the power of the media in affecting people’s opinions of their bodies.
“The media certainly does drive people to lower self-esteem, by feeling that they can never fit in, that they never look right,” Grefe said. “Even if they don’t develop a full-blown eating disorder, the media does play a role in how people feel about their own body type and their own body images.”
Grefe pointed to profit as one of the main reasons why producers and advertisers often capitalize on people’s bodies. In response, NEDA runs a media watchdog program that relies heavily on public support and encourages people to contact producers of advertisements and television programs that may lead to negative body image among its viewers.
“Here and there we’ll see something that we find quite offensive and it’s big enough that we feel we have to take action,” Grefe said. “We always try to do it politely first, by just directly talking to the company or the advertiser. Then if necessary, we’ll invite all of our members and the public to get involved in the fight.”
The media influence self-esteem and body image, but they are not the sole producer of these issues, according to Marsea Marcus, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Sometimes the whole issue of body image really isn’t about body image,” Marcus said. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Co-owner of Inner Solutions Counseling Services of Santa Cruz, Marcus focuses her work on people dealing with food, weight and body image issues. She feels that a focus on the body is often a cover for other problems related to difficulty handling emotions such as fear, disappointment, rejection and sadness.
Many local organizations deal with these deep-rooted issues. The Rainbow Program is an organization based in Santa Cruz and specializes in working with the GLBTIAQ community. Ann Speno is a marriage and family therapist intern at the Rainbow Program who focuses on dealing with body image issues among her clients. Speno concurs that many Americans have been pushed to body image disorders by the stereotypes and sexual exploitation that they see in the media. She also worries that many communities are underrepresented or neglected in the dialogue about body image issues.
“The dominant discourses surrounding the treatment of eating problems often focus on white middle-class girls who are supposedly starving themselves in order to attract men,” Speno said. “This not only trivializes and oversimplifies their struggles, it also renders the body image and eating problems of many people invisible.”
*Body Image in Cyberspace*: The Internet is considered a unique form of media that often allows for direct input and participation from its consumers. This is not always true, as magazines and television corporations have websites that further broadcast their narrow versions of “beauty.”
The Internet can be a place where people suffering from negative body image issues and disorders can find help and support. Medical communities and nonprofit organizations offer tips and support on their websites. There are also millions of blogs, chat rooms and other communities where people can support each other in their recovery.
The opposite is also true as well. The Internet can provide places for people to encourage each other in their illness.
The anonymous student mentioned specific online communities that idealize eating disorders and encourage others to abstain from treatment.
“There are even websites where they glorify these comparisons,” she said. “LiveJournal has pro-anorexia communities. People say, ‘Oh my God, I love my eating disorder. Let’s go fast tomorrow.’ They post pictures of people with eating disorders and people will comment and say ‘I want to look like that.’”
Entire websites are devoted to the “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) causes.
Time magazine highlighted the existence of these websites in a July 2005 article “Starvation on the Web.” It mentioned that the website CeruleanButterfly.com posted tips for hiding eating disorders and quoted the webmaster describing anorexia as a lifestyle choice, rather than a disease. Following the publication of the article, negative attention led the webmaster to remove portions of the site. Most of the “pro-ana” rhetoric has been erased, but tips on extremely low-calorie lifestyles are still present.
According to the Time article, there are at least 500 other websites that encourage the development of eating disorders.
*How to Break the Cycle*: Like many others who have struggled with body image issues, the anonymous student was able to break out of her self-destructive habits with the support of family, friends and some intensive counseling sessions.
Body image professionals and organizations propose positive exercises that can help people feel better about their bodies. There are also means by which to help family and friends struggling with body image issues themselves. Marcus advises people to consciously make a decision to stop talking negatively about their bodies and to try and avoid media that focuses on unrealistic expectations of beauty.
“One thing individuals can do is to tell their friends that they’re no longer going to have unhealthy or mean conversations about their bodies, and to encourage their friends to support each other in being healthy and in accepting and loving their own bodies,” Marcus said. “It’s helpful for individuals to stop looking at fashion magazines that trigger the comparisons and the depression that often occur when we compare ourselves unfavorably to airbrushed people in magazines, and to stop watching television shows that focus on people’s bodies.”
Another way to fight negative body image is through education. Media literacy is the process of educating oneself and others about the messages broadcast by the media, and is another way to combat its negative effects. Marcus stresses that this process needs to begin in the home from a young age.
“Parents need to get the help they need to work on their own body image so that they don’t pass the issues on to their children,” Marcus said. “Then parents need to teach children about evaluating what they see on television, on the shows and in commercials, and teach them that it’s wrong to hate people, judge people, tease people, or shame people for having various body sizes and shapes.”
Many organizations deal specifically with the link between body image and the media. About-Face, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, advocates education and questioning the media by hosting media literacy workshops, teaching people how to be activists, and reaching out to others through their website. Jennifer Berger, executive director of About-Face, suggests simple tools that anyone can use to protest manipulative products and advertising.
“Question what you’re seeing every time, and always think about the motive behind advertising or media,” Berger said. “If you don’t like an ad, then don’t buy the product. That’s how you vote with your dollar.”
Lynn Grefe explains why it is so important to oppose these negative messages.
“We all need to take a stand and say ‘Enough! These practices are killing people!’” Grefe said.
Grefe suggests that engaging in open dialogue about body image issues, and shifting the focus about what is seen as important in people, are powerful means for overcoming negative body image.
“We need to stop spending so much time talking about our physical sizes and talk more about the size of our hearts and our souls,” Grefe said. “We need to talk more about what matters in our lives and what our values are.”
In addition, Karris advises that people begin changing the way they evaluate their bodies and what they value in themselves. She provides several therapeutic practices that are helpful in improving body image and self-esteem.
“Appreciate your body for its functions rather than solely for how it looks, remind yourself to not base your sense of worth on your appearance, and learn stress management and relaxation techniques,” Karris said. “Challenge the belief that thinness equals happiness, success and popularity.”
Professional counselors and body image specialists agree that early treatment of body image issues and disorders is incredibly important. Gulbe Walsh and Karris encourage anyone experiencing distress or negative body image to seek professional help, as the UCSC Student Health Center offers free and confidential counseling services to all currently registered students.