Talking Back: Responding to Media Images of Eating Disorders

In the first six months of 2015, there were several reports in the mainstream media about a rise in the diagnoses and treatment of eating disorders, as squarely attributed to the ‘rise of social media that has helped develop an obsession with image’. Headlines offered such statements as ‘How social media is fueling the worrying rise in eating disorders’, ‘Eating Disorders: How Social Media Helps Spread Anorexia And Bulimia In Young People’, or ‘Social media: Feeding eating disorders’. Some of these reports focused on the general use of image-driven social media (such as Facebook and Instagram) and the centrality they place on youthful bodies. Other reports focused more specifically on how pro-anorexia communities were finding new ways to incite competition between sufferers (and to ‘indoctrinate’ would-be eating disorder subjects) with the use of selfie diaries focused on the body. So as Dr Alex Yellowlees, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory hospital group in London claimed, clinicians had seen a ‘worrying trend for online anorexia “diaries”, charting people’s descent into starvation, complete with photographs… exposing those susceptible to eating disorders to a new level of psychological pressure’.

Such concerns, and evidence of a rise in the diagnosis of eating disorders among young people, should not be wholly dismissed. At the same time, such concerns can be situated as part of a long history of concern in which eating disorder sufferers, particularly young girls, are constructed as especially vulnerable to media images and messages. Given the extent to which eating disorders, especially anorexia, are popularly constructed as a response to the pressure of mediated bodily ideals, the anorexic often emerges as not simply vain and narcissistic, but also unable to separate image from ‘reality’, or self from media object. Indeed, in social science work in particular, eating disorder subjects are routinely constructed as as occupying a ‘heightened state’ of susceptibility in relation to media culture, and as being ‘suggestively vulnerable’ and ‘at risk’ (and thus in need of protection and intervention).

As these descriptions suggest, very little of this work has emerged from Media and Cultural Studies approaches to audiences which challenged the arguments of the media ‘effects’ model some time ago, shifting the focus from how the media ‘effects’ people to how audiences actively engage in the process of generating meaning within broader operations of power. The most articulate and incisive objections to the above images of the anorexic have been made by Abigail Bray in her work on how self-starvation is constructed – in popular, medical and some feminist discourse – as a not simply an eating but also a ‘reading disorder’. Bray explains how a ‘dominant paradox has been mapped onto the anorexic subject’ which insists that ‘food refusal [is]…  the direct result of the consumption of media representations of idealised thin femininity. An excessive media consumption is perceived to activate a pathological fear of corporeal consumption: over-reading produces under-eating’ (2005: 116). In examining how anorexia becomes a ‘synecdoche for all [female]… pathological vulnerability’ to media forms (imagined reading practices which construct women as infantilised and irrational, and which have a long history) (2005: 123), Bray eloquently observes how ‘the consumption of images of an idealised and commodified self is interpreted as an autophagic process in which the subject is transformed into the object of narcissistic consumption’ (Ibid: 117).

It is such problematic consumptions of the relationship between eating disorder sufferers and media culture that I am seeking to complicate and challenge in a study of how people with experience of an eating disorder respond to media representations of eating disorders. The project involves undertaking 18 semi-structured interviews with people who have experience of anorexia, bulimia or EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) and asks them about how they use, evaluate and respond to such media images in the context of their everyday lives. Having undertaken 11 interviews so far, I can safely say that rather than media ‘dupes’ or ‘passive’ consumers, I have encountered highly articulate, critical and insightful responses to how the media portrays images of eating disorders. Participants have shared with me their earliest memories of encountering images of eating disorders in the media; what they find most problematic about how ‘they’ are portrayed; how they would construct their own stories about what it is like to have an eating disorder, as well as the ways in which media images in this regard might be improved.

Cassie in E4’s Skins who suffered from an eating disorder. The association of only young, white girls with anorexia is an image that many participants in the study would like to challenge.

Cassie in E4’s Skins who suffered from an eating disorder. The association of only young, white girls with anorexia is an image that many participants in the study would like to challenge.

I had anorexia for 20 years and for much of that time I also lectured on and studied the media – taking apart its messages and deconstructing its power. In terms of popular media constructions of anorexia, these two identities were surely incompatible.  It wasn’t nice to be spoken for, and constructed as a passive, juvenile and vulnerable media consumer – especially when I was no such thing.  I think we should listen to the voices of those with experience of an eating disorder and enable them to speak back to media discourse, the very thing which is often constructed (in part of whole) as making them ‘ill’. I hope the project – in some small way – can contribute to such a dialogue, and help us value voices which are often dismissed, marginalised and pathologised in relation to media culture.

By Su Holmes                                                                                                                           Reader in Television Studies.

Works cited:

Bray, A (2005) The Anorexic Body: Reading Disorders. In Atkinson, T (ed), The Body: Readers in Cultural Criticism, Palgrave, Basingstoke: 15-128.

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