The tabloids need to stop feigning ignorance of eating disorders

In a country where anorexia and bulimia are on the rise, more attention needs to be paid to articles where thin is painted as the only way

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The Independent Online

We have come to understand all too well the arduous strain under which the media puts teenagers, and the horrific real-life impact it can have. And yet, driven by revenue, still the tabloids print their frequently irresponsible articles.

While it is tempting to dismiss as merely attention-seeking the pieces that perniciously paint women as one-dimensional objects designed for men’s approval, journalists have a serious duty not to be ignorant of their complicity in a culture that is capable of inflicting real damage upon impressionable teenage girls.

You may by now have read Samantha Brick’s latest piece in the Daily Mail, in which the columnist claims that watching her figure with the same intensity as herself and Joan Collins is what “any woman with a modicum of self-respect” should do. The last line of the article reads: “As I see it, there is nothing in life that signifies failure better than fat”.

Brick is a symptom of a wider epidemic, and blame needs urgently to be apportioned to the publications that offer a platform for these types of article, fully and gleefully aware of the fall-out they will generate.

While the hope that papers like the Sun or the Mail might serve to do anything other than perpetuate contemporary obsessions with sex and celebrity has long been extinguished, it does urgently need stating, for example, that anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness and that girls as young as five years-old are wasting time worrying about their weight.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Eating Disorders Section has noted that evidence suggests “the media plays a part in the development of eating disorder symptoms – particularly in adolescents and young people”. Statistics like these might, one would hope, give any humane commissioning editor pause for thought before accepting a piece that argues that one can “never be too rich or too thin”.

One of the more elementary – and intuitive – things that has been established about a healthy body image is that it is not attained through being told that one is a “failure” if unable to lose weight. This kind of language has a positive effect in the mind of no-one other than the writer using it, and is frequently integral to the testimony of eating disorder sufferers.

In a country in which both anorexia and bulimia are steadily on the rise, and distorted teenage body image has long been understood by researchers to be an increasingly grave concern, shrill voices that project insecurity onto others serve to reinforce the deadly notion that one need only be thin to be successful. Articles like these and sites that explicitly goad readers into unhealthy eating habits need to be consigned to precisely the same flames.

The media must, for example, provide considerably more balanced coverage of celebrities in a bid to dispel the notion that a thin frame ought to be the ideal to which its readers aspire. Cosmopolitan’s ‘diet and fitness’ section is titled ‘How to Lose Weight’; even a subtle editorial decision like this perpetuates the idea that all of the website’s visitors are in a physical state that is unacceptable.

Maxine Frith, former editor of Australian Graziaconfirmed as an insider that the media's obsession with weight is gruesome and said that body image surveys run by the magazine always returned “heartbreaking” results.

An article published last week on Jezebel reports that Swedish model scouts are habitually lurking outside eating disorder clinics in order to head-hunt. More needs urgently to be done to combat rather than reinforce the thinking behind this kind of phenomenon. A study by Field at al. found that children aged 9-14 years old who made an effort to look like media figures, were more likely to develop weight concerns. This evidence is as readily available to the tabloids as to anyone else.

Articles perpetuating the thin = win illusion are examples of the sort of terrible writing to which we should not be subjected, and the sort of received wisdom on which we must stamp with no apology.