The Impact Of Social Media On The Prevalence Of Eating Disorders

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While searching the internet for advertisements and music videos that I could use for this assignment, I came across an alarming number of advertisements and music videos that subconsciously promoted disordered eating or an unhealthy mindset. I then did a little bit more research into the impact that social media and the internet had on the prevalence of eating disorders, and found that eating disorders were much more prevalent in developed countries, specifically those who are contributing to the development of Western culture. I believe that this is because developed countries have more access to the internet, advertisements and social media. This trend was explored by Anne Becker, the director of research at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center of Harvard Medical School, who interviewed young Fijian girls before and after the arrival of television onto the island.

Before 1995, there was no television present on the island, and a larger, more robust body was celebrated, as food plays a very central role in Fijian culture. “You’ve gained weight” was even considered a compliment in Fiji, and “skinny legs” an insult. Moreover, before the arrival of television eating disorders were virtually nonexistent. After the arrival of television however, Western culture has started invading into Fijian culture, and so has the notion of an ideal body type. These young girls see the women on television and treat them as an example of what one must look like to make it in the modern world, they believe that these television shows are an accurate depiction of Western culture. In 1998, around 3 years after the introduction of television to the island, Becker conducted a survey and found that an astonishing 74% of teenage Fijian girls felt that they were too big or too fat, and 15% of them admitted to vomiting to try and control their weight.

Furthermore, 29% of these girls scored highly on a test of eating-disorder risk, compared to the 13% in 1995 right as television was being introduced to the island. Even more, girls who reported they watched television 3 or more nights a week were 50% more likely to describe themselves as too big or too fat, and 30% more likely to diet. Becker also noted that before 1995, there was little, if any, talk of dieting in Fiji, but in her 1998 survey 69% said that they had been on a diet at some point. Preliminary data in this survey even suggested that more teenage girls in Fiji were dieting than girls the same age in America. This study demonstrated the powerful relationship between Western culture and eating disorders.

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Eating disorders are caused by a combination of factors including biological, psychological and environmental components, that influence a person and can encourage them to engage in destructive eating habits. Western culture has affected the prevalence of eating disorders by intensifying these environmental factors that can lead to disordered eating, thereby allowing environmental factors to play a larger and more influential role in our lives. Because of this, people who are already either biologically or psychologically at risk for eating disorders are now at greater risk because of the increase in the prevalence and intensity of environmental factors. Western culture is heavily influenced by social media and the internet, and although this is not exclusively the cause of eating disorders, it definitely promotes disordered eating specifically amongst young women living in the Western world. This is because social media, advertisements, music videos, the internet, along with other aspects of Western culture have a huge impact on a person’s body satisfaction, self-esteem, eating patterns and overall mental health. We are constantly bombarded by what the media considers to be the “ideal body type”, which leads people to feel inadequate about their own self-image. Magazines, advertisements, television, movies, etc. constantly use celebrities and models who fit Western culture’s ideal standard of beauty. In this way, tall, thin women are continually being celebrated and glorified which further promotes this ideal body type and puts pressure on people, especially young women to feel like they need to look like the celebrities and models they are constantly seeing in the media in order to be successful.

Yet another factor that is contributing to the increased pervasiveness of eating disorders in Western society is the ability for one to remain anonymous online. Even if an individual does not remain anonymous, people become more confident with what they say when they do not have to say it to a person’s face. The media is always hypercritical of celebrities and models, which often leads them to be quite contradictory when it comes to the ideal body type, as they are constantly criticizing the same people that they put on a pedestal. There are countless stories in magazines and on social media of female celebrities and models being criticized for gaining only a few pounds, when by all accounts they are still very thin. This can send a very concerning message to the young women who look up to the people being criticized in the media, and can reinforce a very unhealthy relationship with food. Moreover, people can now be criticized over anything, including their appearance, from anywhere in the world that has internet access. Because of the anonymity provided by the internet and various social media platforms, people have become completely fearless when it comes to leaving rude and hateful comments. When people see these hateful comments left for them, or even the celebrities and models that they look up to online, it can severely damage their self-esteem because they can start to think that if their idols are not good enough, then they must not be good enough.

I believe that the Western culture at large has a very negative relationship with food and with eating disorders. Through the media, people are constantly being told they need to look a certain way in order to succeed, and it is because of this that Western countries have higher prevalence rates of both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa than non-Western countries. A study by Makino, Tsuboi & Dennerstein found that in Western counties, prevalence rates of anorexia nervosa ranged from 0.1%-5.7% in females, and bulimia nervosa ranged from 0%-2.1% in males and 0.3%-7.3% in females. In non-Western countries prevalence rates of anorexia nervosa ranged from 0.002%-0.9%, and bulimia nervosa ranged from 0.46%-3.2%. Unfortunately, however, eating disorders in non-Western countries is gradually on the rise due the dispersion of Western culture to other countries, and the assimilation of other cultures into Western culture. This evidence, along with the study in Fiji, demonstrates how Western culture effects the prevalence of eating disorders in a population. This is why I believe that Western culture at large has resulted in an increased number of eating disorders throughout the Western world.

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