Running On Empty: Anorexia depicted in the media

For decades now the media has sculpted our bodies on both a literal and figurative level.

For decades now the media has sculpted our bodies on both a literal and figurative level. Society’s concept of the perfect body is in a constant state of distortion due to our being relentlessly bombarded with images and messages that teach us to aspire to an ideal that is ludicrously unattainable yet seemingly enjoyed by all those who grace catwalks and magazine covers.

When Kate Moss burst onto the modelling scene in the mid-nineties her emaciated figure and angular bone structure birthed the ‘heroin-chic’ look, a cynical rebellion against the traditionally full bodied vibrant models of that time. The trend sparked worldwide debate surrounding the media’s apparent promotion of eating disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa currently has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness in the UK with the number of sufferers rising dramatically every year. Public scrutiny of the media’s connection to the disease’s prevalence has been instrumental in encouraging a more positive, healthy and realistic attitude to body image amongst young people.

Why is the discussion limited?

However an unsettling side effect of this constant media buzz has been a loss of understanding and complete desensitisation toward the fact that anorexia is a mental illness. If you ask people what anorexia is they will generally respond with something along the lines of ‘It’s when people starve themselves to lose weight.’

Though anorexia is indeed characterised by starvation and extreme weight loss the condition itself is much more complex and stems from a number of deep-rooted psychological factors. Backlash against the heroin-chic trend was always well intentioned but in many ways it has served to vilify and at the same time romanticise Anorexia in such a way that people no longer view it as a dangerous eating disorder but as a lifestyle choice or extreme diet plan.

One of the most notable results of this stigmatisation has been what experts have dubbed ‘wannarexia.’ Wannarexia refers to a cultural phenomenon in which people claim to suffer from anorexia, or desperately want to, even though they do not. The abnormality carries no diagnostic criteria and is generally thought to be a direct result of the lazy, sensationalised reporting of eating disorders in the mainstream media.

Discussion of anorexia, even in campaigns that seek to stop the media’s subliminal advocacy of it, tend to focus only on the behaviours associated with the condition such as weight control and becoming unnaturally thin, though unintentionally perhaps this ‘dumbing down’ approach portrays the symptoms of eating disorders as positive lifestyle choices that result in being thin, happy and in complete control of your life.

Little research has been conducted into the nature of the wannarexia anomaly but reports show that the ‘condition’ is most prevalent in young teenage girls. Interestingly researchers who conducted investigations into pro-ana websites (online communities in which anorexia sufferers can communicate with and support each other) observed that the majority of people using the sites fell into the category of wannarexic as opposed to suffering from actual anorexia.

Where does the change come from?

It’s deeply unsettling to think that even now the media continues to create a framework in the minds of young people that causes them to see such a dangerous disorder as something both beneficial and desirable.

What’s perhaps more worrying is that this desensitising effect doesn’t stop with anorexia. Our cultural apathy toward understanding mental illness is growing at a rapid pace and is being accelerated by the way in which magazines and TV shows frequently trivialise serious mental conditions.

How many times have you looked at the cover of a celebrity gossip magazine to see the headline “- insert name of perpetually brain dead reality show star – opens up about their battle with depression” or turned on the TV to see some tragic z-lister desperately clinging to their last shred of cultural relevance by revealing they’re bipolar?

Mental illnesses like depression, bipolar and schizophrenia are already stigmatised enough as it is without the media characterising them as superficial emotional blips that come hand-in-hand with success and celebrity. Young people are now not only being taught to strive for an unrealistic body image but also to envy and patronise people who suffer from conditions that can be both life-ruining and fatal.

In order for us to work towards creating a healthy and well informed society we have to start at the top. Media outlets need to completely amend the way in which they report on and discuss psychological disorders forgoing this dangerous and misinformed style of reporting in lieu of an approach that highlights the harsh reality of mental illness whilst also promoting a level of understanding and sympathy that will allow sufferers to feel comfortable enough to speak out and seek help.

What do you think of the coverage and attitude towards psychological disorders? Have your say in the comments section below.