Magazine Feature: Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.

If the seventies were the Age of Aquarius, then we’re now living in an age of disordered eating. During the past fifty years, there’s been a significant change in how western society views the female body, as well as in how women view themselves. For example, I’m a fat girl. To most people, I’m an extremely fat girl. I see them staring at me as I walk down the street, when I board a transit bus, or as I meander through the grocery store. I lower my head in public places so I don’t have to see the disgust that flickers across the faces of strangers, as they look me up and down. More than anything I want to be invisible, an impossible feat for a girl who weighs over 200 pounds and stands at almost 5’11”. I hate my body. I hate the reflection that peers back at me when I look into a mirror. I know I’m not the only person ever to feel this way. There are girls and women who are half my size, yet they consider themselves fat, and are repulsed by it. But why do we feel like this? Why does the appearance of a voluptuous, or over weight, woman incite so much hate? Is it because we are truly disgusting, and deserve nothing less than total distain from the public? Or could it be because of something much more elusive and intangible that surrounds us during our every waking minute but which we fail to acknowledge? Something as seemingly ingenuous as the mass media? Everyday I am exposed to thousands of images. They’re in the newspaper I read in the morning. Splashed across every page in the magazine I flip through during my daily commute. All over the web pages I surf sporadically throughout the day. They’re even on the evening news I watch during dinner. Over 3000 advertisements bombard the public on a daily basis according to reports published by Seattle’s National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA) website. Many of these ads promote an ideal physical of perfection that is unhealthy and artificial.

But it wasn’t always this way. Historically, voluptuous women were beautiful. Had I been alive five hundred years ago, my natural curves would’ve been considered signs of my fertility, maturity, and sexuality. Each era portrays its vision of the perfect woman in its art. For centuries, the perfect woman resembled the goddess Venus in Sandro Bottecelli’s, The Birth of Venus. In the painting, Venus, who is naked, has a rounded belly, thick thighs, and large breasts. This is no longer the case. Advertisers and producers now decide what the perfect woman looks like: she’s young, gorgeous, and very thin. The average model in today’s advertisements is in her early 20s, is almost six feet tall, and weighs 117 pounds (53 kg). The average Canadian woman weighs 153 pounds (69 kg), and is almost 5’4” (161cm). In his book, “The Ways of Seeing,” British novelist, John Berger had the right idea: he wrote about the goddess being replaced by the model In our society, body repugnance has replaced body acceptance. For many of us, being beautiful and thin is more important than being healthy and happy. It’s also something we’ll try to achieve no matter what. I’ve stopped eating for days or weeks at a time in order to slim down. Some people starve themselves for years. Although no one thing can be blamed for disordered eating, the mass media’s obsession with thinness does perpetuate the disease. The Canadian Women’s Health Network reports 90 per cent of women are dissatisfied with how they look. It’s no wonder in a world where females are taught from birth that the only way to be truly happy is to achieve western society’s skewed image of perfection. In 2006, the Canadian Mental Health Association reported that 450,000 women were suffering from an eating disorder. However, it wasn’t always the intention of the mass media to distort reality. The media was born in 1454, shortly after the invention of the printing press, and as it grew and evolved, so did the information it carried. By the eighteenth century, the mass media had emerged and begun selling society unrealistic values.

The relationship between the mass media and eating disorders has been extensively studied and documented by an array of professionals. One of the leading educators in the field is Dr. Jean Kilbourne, who’s spent the last 30 years studying how the mass media affects women. In her film, “Killing Us Softly 3,” Kilbourne explains, “The primary purpose of the mass media is to sell products. Advertising does sell products, of course, but it also sells a great deal more than products. “It sells values. It sells images. It sells concepts of love and sexuality, of romance, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy. To a great extent, (it) tells us who we are, and who we should be . . . (Furthermore, it teaches us) that what is most important about women is how (they) look.” An historic example of this is Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset, which was sold in the 1800s. It was marketed to women under the guise that electric wires sewn into the item would prevent a disruption to blood flow by manually stimulating circulation. To this day, corsets are items of desire, symbolizing slenderness and sexuality. I own two. Women aren’t the only ones affected by the media’s preoccupation with unattainable beauty. Harvard University Medical School has published studies indicating up to 25 per cent of Americans with eating disorders are male. Assuming the rate is similar in Canada, this means over 110,000 of our brothers, friends, and partners are suffering from disordered eating. In Australia, one company is cashing in on men wanting to conform to the images displayed in the mass media. Equman, using the corset as inspiration, has designed a new men’s product: Precision undergarments. Equman promises its customers a product that provides a “Seamless bodyenhancing fit, (and) targeted muscle support for improved body mechanics.” Precision tops and bottoms appear to be quite popular; a New York Times article reported that Saks had sold 30 per cent of its Equman stock in a four-week period.

For the past eight years, Wendee Kubik has been teaching Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Regina. In several of her courses, Kubik teaches her students about the mass media’s role in creating disordered eating and body dissatisfaction in females and males. Although eating disorders are more common in females, Kubik says, “There seems to be more images of men now. The firefighter’s calendar, where men are being used as objects, just like women are. But . . . it doesn’t have the same detrimental effect on men as it does on women,” she said. Kubik encourages her students to question the reasons behind selling an ideal physical image to women and men and to ask who benefits. She said she hopes her students “Come up with the conclusion that it’s a lot of the companies that produce things like make-up, or . . . strive to promote weight loss. There’s a whole culture out there fed by the pressure to conform to this ideal beauty standard. Eating disorders are “Very much linked to the wider society,” says Kubik. “Our capitalist system is set up . . . to make a profit. And it doesn’t matter how harmful it is, the profit motive is always there. They’re trying to sell stuff—that’s what they’re doing.” The women’s magazine I browse while commuting has 10.5 times more advertisements aimed at weight loss than a men’s magazine of the same calibre, according to statistics on NEDA, This helps explain why, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “70 per cent of women . . . are dieting,” at any given time. I’ve been overweight for as long as I can remember. My first experience with dieting was when I was 12 years old, the same year my doctor began prescribing me hunger suppressants. This is becoming normal childhood behaviour. Girls as young as five are engaging in weight control measures, says The Canadian Women’s Health Network (CWHN). And, 50 to 70 per cent of normal weight girls think they’re overweight.

The CWHN also reports that adolescents see almost 5,300 commercials a year promoting an unattainable beauty. It’s not surprising than that two per cent of girls between the ages of 15 and 25 have anorexia, and between three and five per cent have bulimia. Perhaps if they were exposed to 5,300 commercials encouraging health, happiness, and body acceptance, Statistics Canada would have better news to report. Eating disorders are conditions that affect a person’s eating habits and behaviours. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the two most common eating disorders. Above all, eating disorders are mental health issues, requiring the assistance of mental professionals. When someone in Regina is diagnosed with an eating disorder, chances are they’ll meet Andrea Stevenson, a nutritionist with the Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region. She’s part of a team that treats in and out patients, attempting to improve their health and well-being. Stevenson said there are records dating back to 1689 describing patients with eating disorders. But there was a significant rise in the amount of people affected by this disease in the latter half of the twentieth century. That’s “When Playboy centerfold and Miss America were getting thinner and thinner,” she argues. In her book, “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” Mary Pipher writes, “Girls developed eating disorders when our culture developed a standard of beauty that they couldn’t obtain by being healthy. When unnatural thinness became attractive, girls did unnatural things to be thin.” For 50 years, Barbie’s been amusing young girls all around the world. When I was little, I owned at least a dozen Barbie dolls and had more than one box of accessories for them. I still have a Christmas Barbie in its original case on display in my bedroom. A summary of evidence on the impact of media images on body image and behaviours indicates, “Girls aged 5 ½ to 7 1/2 –years old reported less body esteem and a greater desire for a thinner body after exposure to images of thin dolls.” That’s more than girls who either saw images of dolls with a healthy body size or no dolls at all.

The majority of Stevenson’s eating disorder patients are young girls. Eating disorders are dangerous, and present a variety of consequences, the most serious being death. Females can also become infertile, and if they deny their bodies the proper nutrients, they increase their chance of developing medical complications in the future. Stevenson said she has “A patient right now who’s very young, and is showing signs of early osteoporosis.” “The majority of my patients that are underweight have the same food struggles that somebody who is overweight has,” Stevenson added. In a world where my body type is scorned, I’m ashamed of my size. But it’s something I can never hide. Everyone who sees me sees that I’ve failed to become the perfect woman. In addition to being in danger, people with eating disorders are also usually ashamed of their disease. As Stevenson explained, eating disorders are mental disorders, meaning they “Aren’t something like diabetes, where you may feel comfortable telling all your friends. Eating disorders are very emotional, and they seem shameful for people.” Several things contribute to the development of an eating disorder. According to Stevenson, an individual needs to be born with certain temperaments; anorexics tend to display controlling tendencies, whereas bulimics tend to display a lack of control. They must also live in an environment that allows the disorder to flourish. “I agree that our culture plays a big role in (eating disorders),” said Stevenson. “But I think you also need to have these other aspects. The media creates unrealistic images for women, girls, even boys. The male rock stars wear skinny jeans now.” During the past few years, my mp3 player has seen an increase in the amount of music produced that mocks the mass media’s influence on the waistbands of North Americans. Artists like Lily Allen, Nickleback, and Garbage have all written satirical lyrics about eating disorders. But a song by Annie Lennox’s puts it best, “If you’re wise, exercise all the fat off . . . keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved.”

In addition to the images produced by the mass media, there’s an online network of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites created by people with eating disorders in order to find others like themselves. Many of the sites contain thinspiration—images of extremely thin women that act as inspiration—and other motivators like the 10 Thin Commandments. Among the Thin Commandments are “(1) If you are not thin, you are not attractive; (2) Being thin is more important than being healthy; (4) Thou shall not eat without feeling guilty; and (10) Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success.” The mass media is everywhere; it’s nearly inescapable. There are beauty ads in public bathroom stalls. No matter where I go, the same message bombards me: Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels. So how are we to escape the obviously detrimental imagery of the mass media? There has already been movement in the beauty industry towards using models that are more natural. In Sept. 2006, fashion houses in Italy and Spain began banning underweight models that have a Body Mass Index (BMI) less than 18. Dove has its Campaign For Real Beauty, and in Germany, the top women’s magazine, Brigitte, banned the use of professional models altogether. Even though there isn’t an agreed upon formula for avoiding the mass media’s notion of ideal beauty, Stevenson says there are things we can do in our homes and lives to lessen its impact. One of the most important things to do is realize everyone is different, and is supposed to be different, Stevenson said: “That’s the way they’re meant to be. Not everyone is supposed to be 5’10” and 110 pounds.” This means not only accepting our friends and family, but anyone of any shape or size. Stevenson said parents should also be role models for their children, “They shouldn’t be commenting about other people. That’s just not something that should happen. I think it can sometimes cause eating disorder behaviours.” Stevenson also said treating oneself well and staying healthy is important because we only have one body. “People can be healthy and perhaps be heavier than the BMI

tells us, but they’re still healthy. Just because somebody’s thin, doesn’t mean they’re healthy,” she said. Stevenson and Kubik agree the public needs to stop accepting media imagery at face value. They also say the public needs to start demanding healthier body images. For nearly 30 years, I’ve longed to be beautiful—as defined by the mass media. I’ve struggled with body image issues and unhealthy eating habits. My failure was inevitable, though, because my goal was based upon absolute flawlessness. Many models have just had their hair and makeup done by professionals. Many of the photos are digitally enhanced. In the “Summary of the Scientific Evidence,” 43 experts urge the UK’s Parliament and Committee of Advertising Practice to implement policies that will help eliminate the use of unattainable beauty images in the media. They claim this will protect the wellbeing of those vulnerable to negative media imagery. For my sake, and the sake of any children I may have, I can only hope that one day, Canada will decide to enact legislation protecting its citizens from the mass media’s use of unrealistic images to promote unattainable goals. Until then, I’ll be following Andrea Stevenson’s advice: treating myself well and working towards staying happy and healthy.