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Dishonest images feed growth of anorexia

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Wednesday, 12 September 2007


Eight-year-old girls are being admitted to hospital suffering Anorexia Nervosa. One in 100 adolescent girls develop the disorder. It’s the third most common chronic illness for adolescent girls, causing more deaths than any other psychiatric disorder. Some authorities estimate that as many as one in five female students are bulimic. Should we be surprised?

Last week was Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It’s a good time to look at the causes of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction which is at plague proportions in young women.

When you look at the messages they’re sold, perhaps it’s really not all that surprising that they are starving themselves to death. Research shows that many young women feel disgusted by their bodies. Saying they have “low self-esteem” is putting it mildly - they hate themselves.

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Women’s Forum Australia has just published Faking It: The Female Image in Young Women’s Magazines, which explores issues around the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies, body image, and the sexualisation of girls. It was launched at the Melbourne Town Hall on August 18.

Thin, sexualised and digitally enhanced images of women are linked with women’s experiences of poor body image, depression and anxiety and eating disorders. The images contribute to self-harming behaviours and not performing well academically.

Women’s attitudes toward their own bodies are worse after looking at thin media images. In young teenage girls, looking at pictures of thin, idealised models is likely to cause lowered satisfaction with their body and a high state of depression. Reading fashion and beauty magazines is associated with wanting to lose weight and initiating diets.

A five-year study found that reading dieting advice in magazines was associated with skipping meals, smoking, vomiting and using laxatives in teenage girls.

WFA has also produced a mini documentary about society’s built in messages that you have to be thin and sexy to be acceptable. It’s available on YouTube.

In the film, girls talk about how they are influenced by media and celebrity. Flicking through magazines, primary school girls say reading them makes them want to be skinny and go on diets. A 10-year-old tells us she’s going to go on a raw fish diet to lose weight.

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Girls are encouraged to see themselves as objects, to value themselves for how they look, rather than as a whole person. Being skinny, sexually attractive and available are deemed signals of success.

The American Psychological Association recently found that sexually objectifying material contributes to significant harm to young women:

… there is evidence that sexualisation contributed to impaired cognitive performance in college-aged women, and related research suggests that viewing material that is sexually objectifying can contribute to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depressive affect, and even physical health problems in high-school-aged girls and in young women.

In addition to leading to feelings of shame and anxiety, sexualizing treatment and self-objectification can generate feelings of disgust toward one’s physical self. Girls may feel they are “ugly” and “gross” or untouchable. … strong empirical evidence indicates that exposure to ideals of sexual attractiveness in the media is associated with greater body dissatisfaction among girls and young women.

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This is an expanded version of an article first published in the Daily Telegraph and on News.Com September 4, 2007.



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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org). Melinda blogs at www.melindatankardreist.com.

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