How Body Shaming in Media Affects Eating Disorder Recovery and How to Handle It

Feel badly about your body? Having a hard time dealing with media’s images of how bodies SHOULD look? Are you just OVER watching movies or Netflix or other TV shows that have NO body diversity? Sick of social media promoting a certain kind of body type and disguising it as “health” or “wellness”? It can feel as though we are bombarded with images on or phones, on TVs, on computers, and on movie screens that send us the message that we need to look a certain way. In San Diego, messages about having a “bikini body” or a “beach-ready” body assault us on a daily basis. Both in San Diego and other places, summer can especially be difficult. All the media show people in fewer clothes, so you may feel even more conscious about how your body looks. In this post, I’m going to identify three ways the media portrays bodies and how it influences eating disorder recovery. PLUS, I’m going to share what you can do about it.

#1 — Bodies Portrayed in the Media Do NOT Accurately Represent Real People. Ever watch a whole season of a show in one sitting and notice that you are feeling badly about your body? Finding yourself scrolling through Instagram and feel negatively about yourself? Well, there’s a reason behind it. Sohn (2009) discussed social comparison theory, which is the notion that humans base our worth by stacking up our attributes against others’ attributes. Sohn stated that the mass media depicts certain body types as desirable and other body types as undesirable. Social media is similar. Holland and Tiggemann (2016) reviewed 20 studies that found that social media usage is correlated with negative body image concerns. It means that the more you scroll through photos and post pictures of yourself on social media, the worse you could feel about your body.

What to do about it? First, do some fact-checking. It is VITAL to remind yourself that the bodies you see in the media are not the bodies people have in real life. You would think that when going to a beach in San Diego, you would be surrounded by bodies that the media depicts as desirable. NOPE. There are people of all shapes, sizes, races, and religions out there. You may even see people without arms or legs, some in wheelchairs, having a ball. Second, look for exceptions in the media that depict people with diverse body sizes. I’ve discussed how to do that with social media. For movies and TV, check out shows like Shrill on Hulu, Orange is the New Black on Netflix, Empire on Fox, or This is Us on NBC. Some body-positive movies are Little Miss Sunshine, Real Women Have Curves, Precious, and Patti Cake$. You can see a list of those movies and more here.

#2 — Media Typically Equates Health with Having a Smaller Body In San Diego and elsewhere, people are using the terms “weight loss” less and focusing on “getting healthy” instead. You have to be careful, as when you see the shift on “health” in the media, it can actually mean aiming to have a smaller body. The reality is, the size of your body does not indicate how healthy you are. In 2008, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a study of 5,440 adults that suggested that weight was not a reliable indicator of health.

What to do about it? First, have an awareness of messages that media is sending about thinness = health. Acknowledge how discriminating that message is how it reinforces society’s phobia about larger bodies. Second, I know it’s hard to do, but see your primary care physician. Ask around and find a medical doctor who is very caring and compassionate and who will not judge your health based on your appearance. I promise that they exist—I have one! Then, get your health checked out, and you will likely be surprised. If there are issues, ask what you need to do to change it that has nothing to do with your weight. Also, check out Dr. Linda Bacon and Dr. Lucy Aphramour’s new book, Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Plain Fail to Understand about Weight. Your thinking will begin to shift.

#3 — Media Tends to Mock and Dehumanize Larger-Bodied People. I’m a HUGE Marvel movie fan, so I was so excited waiting outside of the movie theater to watch Avengers: Endgame that I was almost levitating! Overall, I absolutely loved it. What I didn’t love, however, (minor spoiler alert) was how they depicted Thor in a larger body. I totally get that directors Bob and Anthony Russo like to do things that are unexpected, and it was definitely a surprise. At the same time, I completely disagreed with how larger-bodied Thor became the buffoon or comic relief. I know that men watched that movie and said to themselves, “that’s what my body looks like, and everyone is treating Thor like he’s an idiot.” How do you think these men feel? Like something was really wrong with them. Other examples of media dehumanizing of larger-bodied people is picturing people with larger bodies without heads, or emphasizing how the person needs to lose weight before becoming worthy of love and affection.

What to do about it? First, train yourself to think critically about what you’re watching. Ask yourself, “Is there body diversity in this show?” If not, WHY? If so, then ask, “What messages are they sending about larger bodies? I really liked the TV show Mike & Molly, which depicted two larger-bodied people falling in love. What I didn’t like is how they met in Overeaters Anonymous and how the show kept revisiting their weight-loss efforts. It sent the message that weight loss is a defining component of a larger-bodied person instead of oh, say, their personalities or character arcs (wow—imagine THAT!). Second, what helps is lots of advocacy work. I’m in the process of writing a letter to Kevin Fiege, President of Marvel Studios. I’m going to explain, as an eating disorder therapist, how the depiction of Thor both discriminates against larger-bodied people and contributes to negative body image and disordered eating perspectives (FYI—you can contact them here). You can also check out The Body Positive Institute, as well as learn about the HAES (Health at Every Size) perspective at the Association for Size Diversity and Health.


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If you are struggling to find eating disorder treatment in San Diego, give me a call for your free 15-minute phone consultation at (858) 699-3754, and I will help you get where you need to be! 

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