When I was ten years old, I had a Barbie doll. I had VHS copies of every Disney movie ever made, and a stack of Cosmo magazines I'd stolen from my older sister. Six years later, I had anorexia. None of these things are related.
You can hardly go online nowadays without coming across an aggressively angry article decrying something or someone for perpetuating "unrealistic body standards"—be it a Topshop mannequin, a Disney character's waistband, or, time and time again, Barbie dolls.
Paradoxically, in discussions of "unrealistic bodies," real women get the most stick for their stick-figures, be it flat-bellied celebrities on Instagram, or, most frequently, the entire modeling industry itself.
It is pretty obvious that the media does perpetuate unrealistic body standards. The most common example is that, if Barbie were real, she'd have no liver and walk on all fours, but the question is: does it matter? The implication is that unrealistic body standards lead to eating disorders, which is an argument I believe reduces a severe mental illness to a vain aspiration to be a runway model—something I have never personally aspired to.
"A lot of people don't see eating disorders as actual illnesses," Carrie Arnold, a 34-year-old freelance science writer, author, and recovered anorexic tells me. "They see them as choices. And thinking that eating disorders are caused by images of thin models really serves to drive home the point that they're all about vanity."
Of course, these arguments aren't unfounded. A University of Sussex study discovered that young girls who played with Barbies reported lower body satisfaction than those who didn't. But the question remains whether this, in turn, causes mental illness. It would be fair to say that most women are in some way unhappy with their bodies. But most women don't have anorexia.
Carrie suffered from anorexia for 13 years. Her disorder began when she went away to college at 18. She exercised to manage stress—a problem that was exacerbated when she developed depression in her junior (third) year.
"I was very depressed, very anxious, and frequently suicidal," she told me. "I just kind of latched onto this idea that if I lost enough weight then I wouldn't be anxious anymore, that I'd feel OK about myself." She compares anorexia to OCD, which she also suffered from at the time—both scrubbing germs and over-exercising were a way to purge herself of negative feelings.
Carrie has written extensively on her blog about how neither the media or Barbie dolls cause eating disorders, and how this argument is hugely trivializing. In her own words: "We don't connect Crying Baby Cupcake Doll and major depression."
Carrie isn't alone in her views. For every psychologist's thesis on the effects of photoshop on our psyches, there's a living, breathing eating disorder sufferer frustrated by this narrow-minded narrative.
"I'm about as good a counter-example to the myth that eating disorders are caused by unrealistic body standards set by the media, Disney, or Barbie that you will find," says Tom*, an executive at a software company in New England, now in is in his mid-50s.
"I'm male. I developed anorexia when I was 14, in 1977. I discovered by accident that, when I withheld food from myself, I got temporary relief from the negative feelings I had about myself. It had absolutely nothing to do with body image. I had no desire to become thinner, and I was only vaguely aware of how thin I had become."
Like many self-harming behaviors, Tom's anorexia was a form of relief. "Fast forward 30 years," he continues, "and my nine-year-old daughter suffered from anxiety, too. She also discovered that withholding food from herself made things temporarily a bit more bearable."
The same tale of relief and control is echoed in many of the sufferers I speak to.
Ruth Carter, a 35-year-old lawyer, author, and blogger from Phoenix, Arizona, developed an eating disorder after she was molested and raped by her brother as a child, then forced by her family to pretend nothing was wrong—an experience she discusses on her YouTube channel.
Carter says binging and purging food helped her cope with being an abuse survivor. She calls her disorder a form of escapism, a way to release anxiety. "When I was younger it probably gave me something I could control when so much of my family life seemed chaotic," she says.
"I would say that I didn't want to look like a Barbie or a Disney princess," she continues. "For one, Barbie has massive breasts. One of the things I like about being thin is that it keeps me small-chested. Given my sexual abuse history, I don't want to be somebody who is objectified by men."
I hope, by now, you've noticed something different about the way I am telling these stories. There is no discussion of weight lost and calories consumed, no haunting images of sufferers at their lowest weights, all razor-sharp ribs and sunken eyes. In my opinion, the real way in which the media is damaging isn't in the way it creates eating disorders, but the way it discusses them.
Articles about anorexia feature in the "beauty" sections of magazines, and publications compete to find the most extreme examples of living skeletons. If a woman's magazine were to talk about Amanda, a 27-year old legal assistant I spoke to about her eating disorder, would they prefer to discuss that she used to weigh her vomit after purging, or the fact that her disorder was caused by the stresses of living with her controlling mother?
When sufferers read these extreme stories they inevitably compare themselves, leading to denial. It gives them something quantitative to measure themselves against, instead of something more dimensional. I used to convince myself I didn't have a problem because I wasn't 55 pounds, eating laxative and lettuce sandwiches and living off a drip.
How can we solely blame the media for causing eating disorders when there are cases of anorexia in blind people and in places like rural Africa. It would also be difficult to explain why George*, a 17-year-old student I spoke to, was hospitalized for anorexia, because our media doesn't make a habit of printing gratuitous pictures of underweight men. But it is the narrative that we most often hear.
That said, it would be incredibly naive to assume that the media does not contribute to the increasing incidences of eating disorders. Anyone who's taken A-level psychology knows how eating disorders increased in Fiji after the introduction of TV in 1995. But doctors are constantly challenging the idea that eating disorders are caused by models and magazines. In fact, the first empirical study on the matter found that young girls were more concerned with copying the personas of princesses rather than their bodies.
Eating disorders are a complex, multi-causal picture, and it's dangerous to take a simplistic viewpoint.
I remember the night I thought I was going to die from my eating disorder. I woke up struggling for breath, my heart hammering in my chest. I promised the long-neglected deity in the ceiling that, if he let me live, tomorrow I would eat some yogurt. I'd gorge on a fucking tub of Yoplait to celebrate my continued existence on this planet.
The next day, happy to be alive, I went to the fridge. I took out the yogurt, saw the "168 calories" label, and couldn't do it. I was so fucking terrified of dying, but not enough to lift a spoonful of yogurt to my lips. It wasn't because I wanted to look like Kate Moss. It wasn't because I used to idolize Snow White. It wasn't because I wanted to look like a blonde, big-titted plastic doll. It was because my brain was fucked.
I had a mental disorder as real and as serious as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. Like those illnesses, it was not a choice. We've come a long way in our discussions on mental health, but our perception of them doesn't seem to have changed that much. Not in my experience, anyway. It's not dolls, and princesses and models that need to be more realistic—it's our perception of eating disorders themselves.
*Names have been changed
For advice about eating disorders visit the National Eating Disorder Association.
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