If you have an eating disorder and you have children like I do, you might worry about your ability to raise your children free of the burden of an unhealthy relationship with food. During therapy I identified that the very beginning of my Binge Eating Disorder was between the age of 8 and 10, when I started eating chocolate bars in hiding. It wasn’t much, it wasn’t binging, but it was the start of the behavior that would take me there, twenty odd years later.
My biggest worry, though, is external influence. I can raise my children to not deprive themselves, to know that they can have chocolate if they want to, even if not all the chocolate they want, and they can have a banana if they want to and they can have green beans if they want to; I can also raise them to find an occupation if they are bored, to get into arts and crafts, to read, to write… but will any of that counteract the effect and power of media?
And by media I don’t mean the fashion magazines or the tabloids, which are probably the largest source of body image issues in young and not so young girls, but social media.
Whether it’d be Facebook, Instagram or any other of the platforms so popular today, what are these other forms of media doing to our self-esteem?
It is doing something.
The NHS reported that hospital admissions of teenagers due to issues related to eating disorders has almost doubled in the past four years and, if you look at the chart below (from this article in the Telegraph), it has done more than that compared to admissions in 2004/05.
It is scary to think that most of these admissions were of young girls of only 15 years of age.
The Royal College of Psychiatrist (RCP) has pointed at social media and online content as the source of this rise (Victoria Ward, Telegraph.co.uk, 2015) and I am not surprised. Social media is flooded with images, whether they be selfies, fashion shots, “suggested posts” on how to lose weight and even “before and after” pictures.
Now, these pictures are taken by individuals who are working really hard to lose weight and that’s fantastic. I am not trying to say that they are to “blame” or they have an evil intent. Quite the opposite. These are honest to god, genuine people who want to share their success and good for them indeed.
This said, we can’t deny that this puts pressure on others. These pictures are telling you things like:
- If I can do it, so can you.
- It was hard work, but it was easy, know what I mean?
- All it takes is willpower.
- No excuses, you can do it.
We could even argue the point that the assumption is that the “before” picture is “bad” and the “after” is “good”. In all fairness, this is really the source of the problem. Since a young age, we’ve been told thin is good and fat is bad. This is probably a subject for a different article, though, as it occurs to me that I could write a thousand words on that subject only.
What can’t be denied is that these images, together with the ads, movies etc, put pressure on women – although these issues are affecting more and more men – to lose weight. I know this because they put pressure on me. When I see these pictures I often wonder why can’t that be me? Should I try whatever it is that girl tried? I am 36 years old and I wonder about it so what can these images do to a teenager whose personality and thought process are not fully formed yet?
Further to that, with the proliferation of online marketing companies (MLMs, see my article here), our Facebook walls include more and more weight loss posts. It’s possible that you don’t have any friends trying to make a living selling products online or, if you do, that the products they are trying to sell are not weight loss related, as there are as many MLMs as products and some of the best known ones concentrate on skincare and makeup. You might, however, have one of those friends that sells nutritional supplements that help you lose weight or wraps or any other program. And you can’t blame them for advertising their products with success stories or even with simple posts like the below, which appeared on my wall as I am writing this article.
And like that one or with before and after pictures or any other strategy, I get everyday.
I also follow some pages of exercising programs I have in DVD, like Focus T25 and Cize. Some other well known programs are P90X and Insanity. All of those are filled with motivational advice.
And I look at that and think “wow, that’s so true! I can make it happen!”. Except that I can’t. Yes, I will get through the exercise and follow the routines till the end, but i won’t look anything like the girls on the pictures they post. Ultimately, I can’t do it because of the eating disorder I already have, which is my particular problem, but it is easy to see how this same motivational speech is capable of inspiring feelings of guilt and shame if you’re sitting on your ass reading rubbish on Facebook, probably an add for some miracle product.
Now, again, this is not to say that these pages and their owners, these individuals trying to make a living, or this people who work their ass off to be fit, are in any way a source of evil or have an ulterior motive and should be banished forever from the net, although this can’t be said from every group or page.
Because of the accessibility of the Internet and how easy it is to have your own website, Facebook account, Twitter… to have your own podium to preach from, there are all sorts of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia places where young girls can get “helpful” tips on how to trick their parents into not noticing the problem or encouraging their visitors to post pictures of the bony parts of their bodies or their thigh gaps – which, incidentally, I’ve always thought were hideous -. And trust me, these sites are not hard to find. They’re not part of the dark web, they’re right there, at the click of Google. This is yet again a whole source of debate, the intention of these pages. I don’t believe either that they’re intentions are bad, as the hosts are usually sufferers themselves, except that they probably are very young and don’t think they have a problem. They think it’s a lifestyle choice.
We are bombarded, day and night, with images that, ultimately, make us question our own validity as women based on the size and shape of our bodies. The overwhelming image of women in media is as pretty things dedicated to advertise stuff, whether it’s cars, or even game consoles.
This image tells you a lot about who the target demographic is. It also tells you that, like a PSVita, a woman is an object to enjoy. Well, how fun.
And here is your 15 year old daughter, in the midst of forming her own identity and sense of self-worth, surrounded by images that tell her how she has to look to be accepted, let alone successful. This impression, then, is supported by hundreds of thousands of women out there constantly trying to improve how they look, friends of yours who, being perfectly normal, keep saying they have to lose weight, while you sit there thinking how you might not even be able to fit your arm into their trouser legs.
So what to do? Well, I actually don’t know. My only hope is that I will raise my children to know that they are much more than the way they look. I hope to encourage them in their hopes and dreams and help them with anything they want to learn or try. I hope they will know that they can come to me with anything that worries them and that there is more to life than being approved of by others based on their appearance. And I hope they will, in turn, make a difference in this world we live in.
- PBS Newshours, 2014, ‘Fighting Social Media “thinspiration” with Messages of Self-Acceptance.” Link here.
- Telegraph, 2015, “Number of Teenagers Admitted to Hospital with Eating Disorders Doubles.” Link here.
- Telegraph, 2015, “How Social Media is Fuelling the Worrying Rise in Eating Disorders.” Link here.