When communicating about eating disorders, it is critical to construct coverage in a way that minimises accidental harm and promotes positive outcomes.
If due caution is not exercised – that is, if the behaviours, symptoms or effects of eating disorders are highlighted or a key focus of the editorial – reports can increase the prevalence of the disorder the greater population (Mindframe 2012).
To avoid causing harm, all media coverage of eating disorders should follow the guidelines set out by Mindframe. They should also avoid trivialising or glamorising disordered eating behaviour or treating eating disorders as entertainment.(Mindframe 2012).
Items that do not conform to reporting guidelines and focus on ‘thinness’ and the ‘body ideal’ also pose a greater risk to those concerned with their physical appearance and create more negative impact in such individuals (Boyce et al., 2013). In this way, the media can potentially contribute to the development of eating disorders in these individuals, and others in the population.
Issues around glamorisation can further be exaggerated when reporting on celebrities, with links shown between the exposure of underweight celebrities in the media to at-risk groups and the development of disordered eating.
This is particularly relevant for females and adolescents, who tend to use celebrities as social comparison targets and thereby engage in disordered eating behaviour with the intention of closing the gap between their own self-image and what they perceive is a standard exemplified by the celebrity (Shorter et al., 2008).
A 2014 study demonstrated the correlation between the media depiction of celebrities perceived to be underweight and online queries related to anorexic behaviours. It was discovered that coverage of popular figures perceived to have anorexia nervosa triggered a 33% increase in online searches associated with disordered eating practices and the desire for thinness (Yom-Tov & Boyd, 2014).
Yet the same study also showed that when the media used the language of anorexia nervosa in their coverage, there was little increase in anorexia-related searches. In comparison, media reports on underweight celebrities that emphasise their eating-related behaviour have much more potential to do harm than reports that simply focuses on the perceived illness (Yom-Tov & Boyd, 2014).
Caution should still be exercised when using language associated with eating disorders in the media, as the incorrect use of language can glamorise or normalise the issue" (Mindframe 2012)
A 2013 study on restrained eaters also indicated that exposure to certain media images resulted in higher weight dissatisfaction and negative moods (although it did not significantly or immediately affect food intake). This correlation was also shown to extend to other females who share commonalities with restrained eaters (Boyce et al., 2013).
The implication here is that vulnerable women (and others in the population) react negatively to certain media images and that such reactions can impact their individual body image and weight satisfaction, and place them further at risk of developing an eating disorder.
Mindframe also provides guidelines around the use of images of people with extreme body weights or shapes, which can lead to adverse effects and motivate some people to try to achieve an unrealistic size/shape (Mindframe 2012). Instead, editors should aim to include a diversity of images of people (with various shapes and sizes) in all coverage of eating disorders.
The stigmatisation of mental illness by the media overall can also negatively affect help seeking in individuals at risk. Researchers suggest that multi-level media approaches and programs are needed that positively influence the perception of mental illness. Addressing and including information on individual-level strategies (e.g. focusing on the mastery of personal crises, rather than behaviours or destructive activities) is also required to help confront the stigma of eating disorders and encourage help seeking (Niederkrotenthaler et al., 2014).
To promote help seeking in all eating disorder public communication, Mindframe further advises:
- Emphasising that positive outcomes and recovery is possible
- Including practical help seeking information in reports
- Highlighting messages on the importance of help seeking
For more information on how to portray eating disorders in the media visit our Communicating About Eating Disorders page
Or for specific information on eating disorder messages, images and language, download the MindFrame Guidelines.
Boyce, J.A., Kuijer, R.G., Gleaves, D.H. Positive fantasies or negative contrasts: The effect of media body ideals on restrained eaters’ mood, weight satisfaction, and food intake (2013). Body image: 2013.
Mindframe National Media Initiative. Reporting and Portrayal of Eating Disorders (2012).
Niederkrotenthaler, T., Reidenberg., D.J., Benedikt, T., Gould, M.S. Increasing Help-Seeking and Referrals for Individuals at Risk for Suicide by Decreasing Stigma: The Role of Mass Media (2014). American Journal of Preventive Medicine: 2014;47(3S2):S235-S243.
Shorter L., Brown, S.L., Quinton, S.J., Hinton, L. Relationships Between Body-Shape Discrepancies With Favored Celebrities and Disordered Eating in Young Women (2008). Journal of Applied Social Psychology: 38, 5, pp1364-1377.
Yom-Tov E., Boyd, D. M. On the Link between Media Coverage of Anorexia and Pro-anorexic Practices on the Web (2014). International Journal of Eating Disorders: 47:2, 196-202, 2014.
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