The University Record, October 22, 1997

Media influence eating disorders

A new study shows a relationship between fashion magazine reading and certain eating disorders, and television viewing and body dissatisfaction. Researcher says the drive for thinness is a learned behavior. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

While the appearance of waif-like models in the media may send a dangerous message about eating disorders, general fitness and fashion magazines and television shows with thin characters also play a key role in influencing irregular eating patterns of young women, says Kristen Harrison, assistant professor of communication studies.

"British model Kate Moss and other ultrathin cultural icons of feminine beauty who have sparked much of this controversy may not be uniquely dangerous," she says. "Instead, the overall emphasis on feminine thinness exemplified by multiple media depic tions of slender models and actresses should be considered for its possible influence on disordered eating."

In a survey of 232 female undergraduate students at a large Midwestern university in 1994, Harrison found that about 15 percent of the women met criteria for disordered eating--signs of anorexia or bulimia, body dissatisfaction, a drive for thinness, perfectionism and a sense of personal ineffectiveness.

The study, which appeared recently in the Journal of Communication, shows that magazine reading and television viewing, especially exposure to thinness-depicting and thinness-promoting media, significantly predict symptoms of women's eating disorders, Harrison says.

According to the study, women who frequently read fitness magazines for reasons other than interest in fitness and dieting display greater signs of disordered eating than women who rarely read them at all. Further, reading fashion magazines in parti cular is significantly related to a woman's drive for thinness and her dissatisfaction with her body, although magazine reading, in general, has little effect on body dissatisfaction.

Harrison says that the relationship between mass media consumption and symptoms of women's eating disorders appears to be stronger for magazine reading than for television viewing. However, watching "thin" shows is a consistent predictor of a woman's drive for thinness and viewing "heavy" shows is significantly related to body dissatisfaction.

Why does body dissatisfaction appear to be more strongly related to television viewing than magazine reading, whereas drive for thinness is more strongly related to magazine reading than television viewing? Similarly, why is body dissatisfaction rela ted to viewing "heavy" shows and not "thin" shows?

Harrison believes that the drive for thinness is a learned behavior that sources such as magazines explain how to achieve (e.g., dieting and exercise). Body dissatisfaction, on the other hand, is not associated with a particular action or behavior bu t is, instead, a set of attitudes, not intentions.

In a related study using the same sample of women, Harrison found that an interpersonal attraction to thin media personalities is related to disordered eating above and beyond the influence of mere exposure to media, even those that depict or promote thinness. She defines interpersonal attraction as a perceived similarity to a female celebrity, and a fondness for and a desire to be like the famous woman.

Being attracted to "thin" characters in shows like "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills 90210" positively predicts general eating disorder symptoms--anorexia, bulimia, drive for thinness, perfectionism and ineffectiveness--whereas attraction to "average " and "heavy" media personalities do not.

"It seems clear that young women's patterns of disordered eating, including both attitudinal and behavioral tendencies, are related not only to the types of media they expose themselves to, but also to the way they perceive and respond to specific mas s media characters," Harrison says. "This relationship may seem obvious to readers who are concerned with this issue and openly acknowledge the possibility that the media operate as transmitters of potentially dangerous socially desirable values and norm s.

"Nonethless, it bears restating for the benefit of any members of the research community and the general public who still believe media messages to be largely ineffectual in the lives of young people."

Harrison's findings are reported in two separate studies: "The Relationship Between Media Consumption and Eating Disorders," published in the Journal of Communication; and "Does Interpersonal Attraction to Thin Media Personalities Promote Eati ng Disorders?" published in the fall 1997 issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.