Wednesday, 12 April 2006

Magazine reports on eating disorders are superficial and misleading

The propagation of the ‘thin ideal’ by glossy magazines is held by many to be partly responsible for the prevalence of eating disorders among women in western society. Ironically, for many people, those same magazines have become their main source of information about eating disorders. Now Rebecca Inch and Noorfarah Merali report that coverage of eating disorders by these magazines is inappropriate, with overemphasis on weight loss strategies, thinness, and a widespread failure to accurately convey the grave health consequences associated with eating disorders.

Inch and Merali analysed eating disorder coverage from 1998 to 2003 in ten magazines: Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Self, Seventeen, Vogue, Young and Modern, People Weekly and Teen People.

Although research suggests that bulimia (insatiable overeating) is up to three times more common than anorexia (deliberate starvation), Inch and Merali found that 75 per cent of the 42 articles they identified were features on anorexia.

They also found 97 per cent of the articles mentioned at least one disordered eating behaviour, with many highlighting common weight loss strategies such as the consumption of non-nutritive substances, and yet scarcely more than half mentioned the fact that eating disorders are potentially fatal (in fact according to a 2000 study, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders).

Furthermore, whereas most articles mentioned the exact menu used by eating disorder suffers when they were ill, fewer than 15 per cent gave a similar description of what sufferers ate after they had recovered. Similarly, a sufferer’s weight when they were ill was mentioned more often than their healthy weight.

The researchers made a number of suggestions to improve magazine coverage of eating disorders, including a call for more pieces on bulimia, a greater emphasis on the serious health consequences of eating disorders, and on healthy eating plans. “These recommendations could be presented to the magazines industry through the dissemination of this study to magazine editors in lay language”, they said.

Inch, R. & Merali, N. (2006). A content analysis of popular magazine articles on eating disorders. Eating Disorders, 14, 109-120.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to the Eating Disorders Association for help and advice.

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