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Sociocultural Issues and Eating Disorders: A Media Analysis

Lisa dedicates her life to studying the behaviours of others. She is currently completing her BA in Psychology and Gender & Women's Studies.

Our global community has been preoccupied with advertisements and media productions for centuries. Both have evolved in numerous different ways, changing how products are to be sold or which products are allowed to be sold, or the desired façade that is normalized within broadcasted communications to aid in portraying the “ideal” personality, behaviour, and appearance. Although it can be argued that published media is not directly damaging, it does hold an immense amount of power in influencing people’s decisions and impulses, indirectly manipulating people’s self-view and personal sense of identity. The following article will dissect two pieces of media: a gym advertisement, and a music video by one of 2020/2021’s biggest pop culture icons. They will be analyzed through both a psychological lens and a sociocultural lens, connecting the findings to disordered eating. Following will be my personal speculation of the complexities within the relationship between Western culture and its impacts on eating habits and self-esteem.

Gold’s Gym™, Dreamland EG: This is no Shape for a Girl

When I first came across this advertisement, my jaw dropped and I said a few profane words out loud to myself. I assumed that the advertisement must be slightly dated because (a) advertisements with negative connotations usually get thrown under fire pretty quickly nowadays due to the drastic increase in social media use, ease of communication, and an overall lesser acceptance of the public shaming of people’s identities, and (b) the “pear body type” (which is a problematic term in itself as every body is different and cannot be properly categorized into fruits) is what a great deal of feminine bodies now believe they should strive for in order to be deemed attractive. Although, to my surprise, the advertisement was only propagated 5 years ago! After further investigation into Gold’s Gym™ as a company, the franchise which was responsible for posting the advertisement (and other offensive posts too) was located in an area just outside of Cairo, Egypt called Dreamland (this franchise is now permanently closed due to their repetitive body-shaming advertisements). This could be an underlying factor; Egyptian culture is vastly different from Western culture, corresponding with the “ideal” Egyptian body type likely being different from that of the “ideal” American body type.

The dominant message that this advertisement is trying to convey is “in order to achieve a ‘non-pear’ body, or in other words an ‘attractive’ body, you must utilize our services”. Body-shaming alone is abhorrent, but advancing it to a level where businesses can rely on it to sell commodities is indicating a much larger issue than solely the advertisement itself. The mass production of advertisements such as these is markedly contributing to body-focused compulsions to try and meet a certain physique and acting as a catalyst for both diet culture and the diet industry.

Megan Thee Stallion: Thot Shit

Megan Pete (commonly known by her stage name Megan Thee Stallion) is an American rapper that has completely changed the game for not only female artists, but for feminine bodies in general. In multiple interviews, she has stated that her primary reason for going into the music industry is to normalize women displaying a positive body image, learning to accept their individualism and sexuality, and to encourage female empowerment (she even named her fan base “hotties”). In my eyes, she is utterly succeeding. She receives a lot of support as many of her fans have spoken to how both her demeanor and her lyrics have gifted them with a greater sense of self-love and self-pride.

Contrastingly, Megan also receives a lot of hate. This music video in particular caused a lot of controversy, both socially and politically, when it first premiered. Evidently the music video (and the song in general) contains an abundance of facets that are best left to mature audiences. One could argue that performing and advocating for this type of behaviour is inappropriate or “disgusting”, but one could also argue that it is helping to legitimize a woman’s right to agency over her own body. The political affiliation implemented into the music video represents the institutionalization of the over-sexualization of women, and how women’s bodies are frequently used for sexual pleasure, followed by shame for openly demonstrating or engaging with their sexuality. There is no question that this has a huge impact on people’s body images and their eating habits, as embracing or accepting one’s sexuality goes hand-in-hand with self-confidence and an appreciation of one’s body. It is also to be noted that parts of the music video were set in a diner. I think this has a compelling underlying connotation of “you can still be exactly who you want to be and do it powerfully, even if you eat whatever you want”.

As a cis-woman, I have felt and continue to feel the effects of both systemic and relational expectations regarding my appearance since I was a child. Because of this, I have developed a great appreciation for Megan. She encourages the acceptance of all body types (in the music video you will notice that most of the performers do not have bodies that are spitting images of each other) and the importance of weighing health and success more heavily than what others perceive you to be or what they think you should be.

The Relationship between Disordered Eating and Western Culture

The overall prevalence of eating disorders is statistically higher in Western countries than it is in non-Western countries, yet the rate of eating disorders in Eastern countries is rising (Makino et al., 2004). Although my speculation is that the rate of eating disorders in Western countries is following suit and is simultaneously rising as well. This is likely due to Western culture being heavily industrialized, where in most industrialized societies there is a substantial focus on thinness, particularly because thinness is commonly associated with socioeconomic success. Magazines, television, and other forms of media have all contributed to the creation of this utopian “ideal” body type, broadcasted as a mechanism to become an attractive and successful individual. The pressure to be slim may result in extreme dieting, even in children, and can develop into an eating disorder in those who are susceptible to it. In the interest of Eastern citizens commonly looking to America as the “land of opportunities” and as one of, if not the, most powerful country in the world, could be an explanation for why eating disorder rates and the importance placed on thinness is making its way into these Eastern communities and is slowly on the rise. As justified by Pumariega et al. (1994), anorexia nervosa is more prevalent than previously believed and is increasing among African Americans. Pumariega et al. (1994) conducted a survey pertaining to readers of a widely known African American fashion magazine and discovered that disordered eating mentalities and body dissatisfaction were lining up to be at a similar prevalence level among African American women as they were among Caucasian women, with a significant negative correlation between body dissatisfaction and a strong Black identity. They suggested that, similar to the Caucasian society, that thinness is acquiring greater importance in African American culture (Pumariega et al., 1994).

Looking at this analysis through a cultural lens raises some interesting perspectives relevant to how one’s relationship with food differs quite significantly between cultures. For example, food is a highly cherished commodity in the country of Italy (where Italy is classified as a Western country). Because there is such an emphasis on food in Italian culture, is it possible that Italians are more susceptible to disordered eating? Moreover, thinness is highly praised in Italy, primarily among women. Di Giacomo et al. (2018) found that Italian women see an underweight body mass index as a model of adherence (which is awfully troubling). Not that this individual study indubitably proves my speculation that Italians (or people a part of Western culture as a whole) are more susceptible to eating disorders, but it does act as a support. Albeit there are several Eastern countries that also greatly treasure food (for example, Thailand or China), yet are statistically lower on the scale of eating disorder prevalence. This could relate to certain concepts from what we are taught from Westernized diet culture, things such as “carbs are bad because they make you fat” or that “dining out is bad because you have a lack of control over your food choices/intake”. Western culture tends to be more industrialized than Eastern culture, placing greater emphasis on the restaurant and food services industry (although noting that this is a generalization). The heavily capitalist regimes of Western society consistently encourage the consumption of commercialized food businesses and products, thus causing an increase in the systematic pressures to conform to indulgence (this same idea applies to the Gold’s Gymadvertisement; it is encouraging women to “consume” a gym membership in order to not have a “pear body shape”, catalyzing the conformity to change one’s body to “look the right way”). It is likely that this is a causation for the greater prevalence of eating disorders in Western culture as popular culture tells us to be thin, yet the profoundly prominent food industry tells us to consume time and again. The relationship between these two corporations is colliding, coaxing Western individuals to be their own mediator with respect to an issue that they have zero control over; one can imagine how this would impact the human psyche. The disordered messages which bombard the public sphere are contributing to disordered habits in humans, including eating.

One of the biggest contenders when observing eating disorder ubiquity is gender. To my knowledge, women tend to be more susceptible to developing an eating disorder, although the cause of this is deeply multidetermined. The most notorious determining factor that comes to my mind is the portrayed overt sex appeal of the feminine body, implementing an enormous amount of pressure put on both young girls and grown women to adhere to achieving or maintaining the “perfect” body type. As mentioned previously, there seems to be a correlation between thinness and success (for example, very rarely do you see an overweight businesswoman, yet obese businessmen have become one of the poster people for Westernized institutional employees). A study conducted by Glass et al. (2010) found that although relative body mass does not have a significant direct impact on neither women nor men’s job paths, it does have an indirect effect on women’s careers. Overweight women spend less resources on schooling than thin women, which has a detrimental effect on their professional paths; there seem to be only a few detrimental impacts of body mass on men’s occupational achievement (Glass et al., 2010). Because a woman’s success is so strongly correlated with her body shape and/or size, it becomes difficult for an overweight woman to gather enough self-confidence to decide to enter the professional domain, either educationally or occupationally. The body has become a significant identity project for women growing up in materialistic, consumerist, and media-driven societies. While the body has evolved into a critical tool for self-expression, many girls and women see it as a major impediment and cause of pain. As such, it seems as if an increasing number of women in the Western world are struggling with eating disorders. A psychologically clever, highly lucrative, globalizing beauty/diet sector has invaded and profited on women’s most private concerns and desires about their bodies in order to sell an absurd variety of goods to growing consumer markets. As a consequence, millions of people are being impacted by growing concerns about a supposed “obesity epidemic” that is threatening public health. It seems discernible how these dynamics aid in the development of eating disorders in women.

Concluding Remarks

Eating disorders are multifaceted conditions. There are many myths regarding eating disorders that must be dispelled in order to properly understand those who live with them. Examining the influence of Western cultural perspectives on eating behaviours and attitudes about appearance elucidates the high incidence of disordered eating and bodily dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, Western society is not an exclusive reason for why eating disorders exist and why they continue to affect millions of people. Emotions and self-esteem are inextricably and adversely related to weight and, subsequently, food consumption, where things like advertisements or popular media have the ability to influence and manipulate people’s emotions and self-views, whether it be positively or negatively.

Women are socially associated with their bodies in Western society. The way that Westernism values or devalues their physical characteristics, bodily proportions, and abilities has a profound effect on their sense of body and self. These elusive beauty standards can cause women to change their bodies by utilizing methods that can lead to detrimental body image issues, dangerous body modification techniques, or eating disorders. It is important to note, however, that women do not alter their bodies for the simple reason that they are thoughtless pawns of sexist, racist, and classist media culture. Alternatively, they seek the “desired” body and character due to their natural reactions to tyrannical standards and assessment of others. Women’s increased emphasis on beauty, in my opinion, is not necessarily a sign of victimhood in consumer society, but rather a sign of women’s best efforts to negotiate an illustrative system in which bodies have become key indicators of one’s self-worth.

References

Di Giacomo, D., De Liso, G., & Ranieri, J. (2018). Self body-management and thinness in youth: Survey study on Italian girls. Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 16(1), 120. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12955-018-0937-4

Glass, C. M., Haas, S. A., & Reither, E. N. (2010). The skinny on success: Body mass, gender and occupational standing across the life course. Social Forces, 88(4), 1777–1806. https://doi.org/10.1353/sof.2010.0012

Gold's Gym Dreamland. (2016). This is no shape for a girl. In Us Weekly. https://www.usmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/golds-gym-981be1c4-1819-4b6d-b622-2c7de842b3ba.jpg?w=700&quality=86&strip=all

Makino, M., Tsuboi, K., & Dennerstein, L. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders: A comparison of western and non-western countries. The Medscape Journal of Medicine, 6(3), 49.

Megan Thee Stallion. (2021, June 11). Megan Thee Stallion - Thot Shit [Official Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/KynkMn5Hv3Q

Pumariega, A. J., Gustavson, C. R., Gustavson, J. C., Motes, P. S., & Ayers, S. (1994). Eating attitudes in African-American women: The essence eating disorders survey. Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 2(1), 5–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640269408249094

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Lisa Hallam

Comments

Lisa Hallam (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 02, 2021:

Thanks Umesh!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on October 01, 2021:

Thought provoking analysis, very informative and useful, thanks.

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