A few months ago the national news spotlighted eating disorders because a young woman who was suffering from severe anorexia reached out through social media to share her story and seek funding for treatment. I applaud this courage and determination to achieve recovery. However, I have concerns about the way in which the story was portrayed in the media, and the unintended consequences that this approach may have.
It is commonly stated that the media glamorizes eating disorders. I would argue that this isn’t necessarily true. In fact I believe the media appears to poke fun at eating disorders more often than not. (Recall the scene in Ms. Congeniality when Sandra Bulluck makes a blatent joke about another contestant using an ED behavior? Or the Disney show “Sonny With A Chance” episode in which the main character states, “I could just eat you up. Well, you know. If I ate.”) I do, however, believe that the media clearly tends to sensationalize eating disorders. And this latest story fueled the media’s sensationalistic approach to eating disorders more so than we have seen in the past.
The headlines read “XX lb Woman Pleas for Last Chance at Survival.” The pictures and video footage shared showed this very ill woman being helped with different tasks around the house and asking for donations to fund her treatment which insurance had denied.
What the media fails to recognize is eating disorders can often manifest as illnesses of comparison. When I was actively eating disordered, all of my thoughts revolved around “getting sick enough.” And this is not at all uncommon. In fact many individuals delay seeking treatment because they fear they are not “sick enough” or “thin enough” to warrant it. (Side note- managed care and insurance companies fuel this fire but that is a separate article entirely). Even when individuals do enter into inpatient programs, comparison of lowest weight, blood pressure, number of inpatient stays-you name it- runs rampant. It is a dangerous and all too real occurance that individuals suffer from eating disorders experience.
By loudly displaying this woman’s weight and showing the pictures the media is sending harmful messages to two different groups of people: People suffering from eating disorders, (“I have to be dying to be “sick enough” to get help) and the rest of society, (“People with eating disorders are always emaciated white women who are on the brink of death.”)
Awareness and open communication are the keys to understanding and de-stigmatizing these illnesses. The media has the power to do this, and to impact society’s perception about eating disorders and recovery. I believe that they have an obligation to begin taking responsibility for their portrayal of eating disorders, so that they can begin to partner in the fight against eating disorders, not spur them on. Individually, we cannot stop the media’s portrayal of eating disorders, however we can, as a group continue to promote knowldge and awareness. This is why every posting, every rally, every public event, every article, every recovery talk helps. So keep up the good work warriors. We have a long way to go in terms of media and public knowledge, but just look as how far we have come.