Why the promotion of thinness is harmful to public health

Joanne looks at the media’s dangerous portrayal of thinness

Written by Joanne Teehan


As a nation, Ireland has been slammed and slated for having an increasing population of people with obesity. One in four people are claimed to have obesity in Ireland. As an unhealthy nation, we are destined for an 89% increase in people with obesity by the year 2030, according to the experts. With an increase in processed and convenience foods taking over our diets as we eat on the go, while ‘take aways’ being a preferred choice of food for many teens, we can begin to understand why, as a nation we are leading the way for our population topping the charts having a weight problem.

With type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease spiralling out of control, we also have another national problem on our hands.  That problem is, the media. On a daily basis, we are subjected to images of what the media considers to be beautiful, perfect, thin and a healthy weight. We follow fitness and health bloggers on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media sites for “thinspiration” otherwise known as “#thinspo”.

This can be a source of motivation, indeed. However, studies have shown that young people, who are “followers” to some of these people, compare their lives to the lives of these bloggers, resulting in an increase of depression, low self esteem and other various mental health issues. Orthorexia is a disorder which is defined as “a fixation with righteous or correct eating”. Orthorexia is becoming increasingly mainstream, where young people self loathe and isolate themselves socially.

People with Orthorexia combine restrictive diets with punishing extensive exercise regimes, are fanatical about calorie counting, green juicing, collar bones and thigh gaps, oh and eating “clean”. It is fuelled by the mania which is portrayed on the media for healthy eating, resulting in growing anxiety around obesity. Yes, it can be said, there is a fine line between being health conscious and health obsessive. A year or two ago, our nation was at danger due to unhealthy eating, but now, in 2016, we are at danger of Orthorexia.

We are frequently  subjected to “before and after” images on various social media sites of people who have shrunk in size, due to weight loss. Now don’t get me wrong, I highly commend these people for their hard work and dedication. What I do have an issue with, is the fact that it is a promotion of thinness. The public are not made aware of how much cholesterol the person has reduced, or how their BMI is now on a healthier scale, or whether the person is no longer deficient in iron or perhaps the individual has increased their longevity by quitting smoking.

We are unaware of the person’s fitness rate or how their percentage body fat has been replaced by muscle. We are subjected to these visual images on a daily basis. Surely, this must have a negative impact on the nation’s mental health and self esteem.

According to Bodywhys, a support organisation for people with eating disorders, approximately 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by eating disorders annually. It results in approximately 80 deaths per year. Eating disorders may consist of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, as well as Binge Eating Disorders. In 2014, 93% of people admitted to psychiatric hospitals with eating disorders were females. According to Mc Nicholas et al. (2012), “greater maturity in girls was associated with increased eating concerns, a higher drive for thinness and higher levels of body dissatisfaction, which resulted in distorted eating”.

But what is it that is exposing our young females to lust for thinness and to be so dissatisfied with their own image; the media. The survey “How we see it” conducted by Department of Children and Youth Affairs (2012), also discovered that 71.4% of Irish adolescents feel adversely affected by media’s portrayal of body weight and shape. 77% of Irish teens ranked body image as being most important to them.

Self image was confirmed by these young people to be the number one thing that “hurts” the mental health of teenagers in Ireland. Similarly, Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a psychological condition where an individual obsesses over their appearance and a perceived flaw they may have. These individuals avoid social situations as they are so self conscious, they cannot endure contact with other individuals. Yes, we are aware that the media has a narrow minded view of beauty and “thinness”, but for how much longer are we going to allow ourselves to be exposed to this portrayal of an appropriate size.

Celebrities, too, have a highly influential role in the promotion of thinness. You go to any newsagent, pick up any issue of Closer, Heat, U, Look magazine etc… you are sure to find some poor unfortunate woman who has gained 7 pounds, or there abouts. Unflattering images are scattered across the pages, highlighting the person’s stretch marks, or lumps and bumps or sometimes in case the reader cannot spot any flaws; circles will be placed on the unflattering area to highlight the person’s most likely, insecurity.

Similarly, we are shown celebrities who have dropped two dress sizes. They are usually then slammed and shamed for being “too thin”, even though a few months previous were slammed and shamed for being “too big”. We are exposed to these celebrities and their misfortunes and as this exposure draws us to compare our own insecurities to theirs, no doubt this will have a negative impact on our public mental health and self esteem.

The promotion of thinness in the media has been a cause of low self esteem for many individuals for a number of years now. For how much longer, will we stand for this on our media sites? Unless we make the nation aware of the harmful effects of this promotion of thinness, we will have a much larger problem than obesity on our hands.

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