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Some anorexia mythbusting

Posted Mar 08 2010 7:37pm
I have to confess: I have a soft spot in my heart for the Discovery Channel show MythBusters . It's a great show to teach the otherwise uninterested about how to conduct a solid experiment, and there's lots of pyrotechnics--what's not to love? Besides that, the ever-nerdy biologist in me loves to poke holes in commonly held theories and ideas, whether historical, sociological, or scientific.

Which is why I loved this article from (of all places) Discovery News: New TV Show Perpetuates Anorexia Myths . The new TV show, hosted by Jessica Simpson, is called " The Price of Beauty " and will air on VH1. Simpson says this about the show
“I have always believed that beauty comes from within and confidence will always make a woman beautiful, but I know how much pressure some women put on themselves to look perfect. I am really looking forward to discovering how beauty is perceived in different cultures and participating in some of the crazy things people do to feel beautiful. I know we will all learn a lot on this journey and I am so excited that VH1 is coming along on what I’m sure will be a wild ride.”
Which is all well and good- I have no problem with a show looking at different cultural ideals of beauty, and how it varies from place to place. I think it could be both entertaining and eye-opening.

So what does this have to do with anorexia?

In one of the first episodes, Simpson interviews anorexia sufferer Isabelle Caro, whose appearance in an anti-anorexia billboard caused quite an uproar several years ago. And since Discovery News writer Benjamin Radford did such a good smack-down of the issues, I'll let him speak
What Isabelle Caro, Jessica Simpson, and the VH1 show don’t realize is that anorexia has little or nothing to do with fashion modeling. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are biological diseases, not voluntary behaviors. The idea that a model, photo of a model, or Web site can "encourage" anorexia is not supported by science or research. Images of thin people cannot "encourage" anorexia, any more than photographs of bipolar patients "encourage" bipolar disorder, or photos of diabetics "encourage" diabetes.

Though many people are convinced that anorexia is a threat to most young women because of the media images they see, that’s not what the scientific evidence says. Anorexia is a very rare and complex psychological disorder with many indications of a strong genetic component; as anorexia expert Cynthia Bulik noted in her 2007 study “The Genetics of Anorexia,” published in the Annual Review of Nutrition, “Family studies have consistently demonstrated that anorexia nervosa runs in families.” Most research studies have failed to find a cause-and-effect link between media images of thin people and eating disorders.

...Nearly every woman in America regularly sees thin women in everyday life and the media, yet according to the National Institute of Mental Health, only about one percent of them develop the disease. If there a strong link existed between media exposure and anorexia, we would expect to see an incidence many orders of magnitude higher than is found.

Anorexia is a tragic disease; some young women (and men) do diet to excess and have body image issues. But the scientific research shows that they are the exception, not the rule. The first step in solving a problem is correctly understanding it, and TV shows like “The Price of Beauty” may actually end up doing more harm than good.

Since research suggests that the causes of anorexia have more to do with genetics than thin fashion models, efforts to educate young girls about the artificiality of airbrushed media images won’t do anything to treat or cure anorexia. Girls and young women deserve facts and truth instead of myths and misinformation.

(emphasis mine)

Can I hear a "Hallelujah, amen!"?

If anorexia is seen as a cultural illness by a bunch of diet-crazed beauty freaks, no wonder the allocation for research dollars is minimal, that insurance companies can put up such resistance to covering eating disorder treatment*, that I have been told by so many people to snap out of it and get over it. Yes, I have been exposed to the thin body ideals . Yes, I have probably internalized some of that. No, that has nothing to do with my anorexia .

I wasn't trying to be thin to look like some sort of magazine model; I was terrified of eating and gaining weight. I was aware that anorexia made me look pretty atrocious--I couldn't sense that I had lost weight as my illness progressed, but I could see the gray-yellow skin, the blue nails and lips, the brittle, thinning hair. The culture of thin provides a vocabulary for many sufferers, and it helped me explain to myself and others why I didn't want to eat or tried to avoid eating. I did believe my own bullshit, to some degree. One of the key aspects of anorexia is the inability to understand just how sick you are. So, yeah, telling yourself and your parents and your friends and anyone who cares to listen that your starvation is just an attempt to lose a few pounds and/or just another diet is an easily available defense. It makes sense to you and it helps get those around you to stop breathing down your bony neck.

Anorexia existed before the advent of supermodels, and I have a feeling it will exist after. In the meantime, I'm sending a huge thank you to Benjamin Radford for speaking out on this issue. You can post your own comments at the bottom of the article, so send him some ED Bites lovin'.

*There are other reasons insurance companies can do this, too, not the least of which is the lobbying power fueled by astronomical profits and the fact that it's cheaper to let sufferers die than pay for treatment. But I digress...
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