Stick-thin women on TV need health warning, says expert

Psychologist believes seeing images of skinny performers affects the way women and girls eat.

Cher Lloyd's controversial selection over X Factor rival Gamu Nhengu isn't the only contentious thing about the ambitious talent show hopeful. Watching her stick-thin frame will have an impact on women's health, a new scientific paper claims.

Aric Sigman, a psychologist who wrote the report, is urging the Government to intervene over the prevalence of thin women on television because he believes there is clear evidence to show that the abundance of skinny women on screen has become a medical issue. He wants the Department of Health to issue "assertive guidance" on the impact of images on female health, claiming the effects are strong and immediate. The relationship between media and body image has previously been treated as a psychological, cultural or political debate – as opposed to biological.

"Of course one isn't blaming it [body dissatisfaction and eating disorders] entirely on the media, but it is a very powerful link in that chain and it has evaded the degree of importance that it has to accept," said Dr Sigman, who has collated research from across the globe for a paper in The Biologist, the journal of the Society of Biology. "The idea that the media is being used as a scapegoat and that it's the whipping boy of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders is not an acceptable riposte any more. Times have changed."

Dr Sigman, who believes children under three should not be allowed to watch TV, said images of thin women would always exist. But he claimed the "sheer number" of unnaturally thin women combined with the access girls had to images made it a "very significant health issue".

He said while it was easy to blame "extreme" catwalk models, it was "everyday" images of news readers, children's television presenters and talent show judges who were "deeply unrepresentative" of most British women that were dangerous to girls. Cher Lloyd's slender frame triggered renewed concerns over her health yesterday.

Dr Sigman said people may take the issue more seriously after studies identified the mechanisms by which "an actual image translates into a change in a way a woman feels and perhaps a change in the way that she then conducts her eating or exercise behaviour".

Studies have found immediate brain changes occur in confident and healthy women when they are exposed to images of thin females. "The parts of the brain involved with anxiety, unhappiness, self-loathing, pain, those sorts of things become highly activated in all of the women that they looked at," explained Dr Sigman, a fellow of the Society of Biology.

His paper also reveals that disturbed genes have been identified in eating disorders. As childhood distress is found to influence DNA and the way genes function, it is conceivable body dissatisfaction that starts early in girls or is prolonged may also influence DNA and disturb genes, which may then trigger eating disorders in susceptible individuals.

Susan Ringwood, chief executive of Beat, a charity for people with eating disorders and their families, welcomed research that could help people understand eating disorders have a strong biological basis. Approximately 1.4 million females in the UK have an eating disorder.

Ms Ringwood said images of thin people can be dangerous as they can make it harder for people with anorexia and bulimia to get better. The charity is particularly concerned by the use of dramatic images of emaciated people to illustrate stories about those with eating disorders.

"We think there are particular risks with a significant portion of people that these images are as dangerous to them as printing how many Paracetamol it takes to kill yourself to someone with suicidal intentions," she said.

Ms Ringwood does not want thin people banned from screens; instead she would welcome greater diversity. "The more we can see that we all come in different shapes and sizes would be helpful to everybody, including those at risk of these serious mental illnesses."