Eating Disorder Awareness Week (2 of 5)- Media Representations of Beauty and the Impact on Body Image

Melissa M. Gonzalez, Psy.D.

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A 2008 meta-analysis of 77 studies found that exposure to media images depicting a thin ideal-body is related to body image concerns for women including body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and certain eating behaviors or beliefs. Most of the images we are exposed to by the media – including television, movies, magazines, websites, and advertisements – depict women who are very different from the average American woman.


Media portrayals of thin perfection permeate our society, but don’t reflect who we truly are. While the average American woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 pounds, the average American model is 5’11” and weighs only 117 pounds. This puts her at around 75% of her ideal body weight. Diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa requires a body weight that is less than 85% of the ideal body weight, meaning that most models would easily meet such criteria. Furthermore, these models wear makeup and clothing that enhances and/or diminishes certain parts of their bodies. Many have had plastic surgery or other procedures to alter their appearance. Still, editing and enhancing techniques, such as Photoshop, are used to further distort these images into unrealistic representations of beauty. Bodies that differ from this standard with regard to age, color, or shape are not equally represented. These images are ever-present in our lives and they shape the way young women and girls believe their bodies should look. What’s worse is that young women and children are often targeted by these media messages.

We have to challenge these ideals and help girls develop as sense of self that is rooted in more than just physical appearance. We cannot accept these representations as expectations, instead teaching acceptance and love of bodies that come in all shapes and sizes. We can promote health and fitness in a manner that does not contribute to disordered eating. We must learn to value ourselves and our bodies for more than just beauty by someone else’s definition.

The role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Grabe, Shelly; Ward, L. Monique; Hyde, Janet Shibley Psychological Bulletin, Vol 134(3), May 2008, 460-476.


If you suspect that your chld may suffer from an eating disorder or may be developing patterns of disordered eating, express your concerns difectly and privately in a kind, empathic, calm and supportive manner. Be able to ask educated questions. Do not try to force your child to eat. Engaging in a power struggle will not help. Providing advice about dieting or nutrition commenting positively about appearance, or attempting to solve your child's problems is not recommended. Do not agree to keep disordered eating habits a secret. Finally, do not let fear prevent you from confronting your child. EDs have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Intervening and seeking help may save your child's life. At the Tarnow Center for Self-Management we believe in a comprehensive approach to the treatment of eating disorders. This "attack n all fronts" often includes family therapy; and parents become an important part of the treatment process. Additionally, parents are encouraged to seek support, for themselves during this challenging process and that may take the form of support groups including other parents of children with EDs, use of online resources, or even individual therapy.

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