Covering body image and eating disorders — carefully
Lady Gaga reacted to criticism of her weight gain by posting photos of herself in her underwear and saying she had overcome an eating disorder and learned to have a positive body image. Then a television anchor took on a “you’re fat” insult head-on.
If you’re like me, those stories make you think about talking to students on your campus about body image and eating disorders. Unlike me (probably), you don’t have a daughter who’s a social worker. These are complicated issues, she told me. She also told me about “Brave Girl Eating,” a book by Harriet Brown, associate professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
I got in touch with Brown, who was kind enough to pass along some advice for college editors (below). I think it’s especially important to consider her distinction between eating disorders and “disordered eating.” The latter is much more common, she says. That may make “disordered eating” a much easier entry to point to get a conversation going about the relationship of body image and eating on your campus.
“It’s important to remember, when covering eating disorders, that they are lethal mental illnesses with strong genetic and neurobiological components. Over a period of 20 years, for example, about 20 percent of those who develop anorexia will die, half from starvation-related complications and half from suicide. The mortality rate for anorexia is higher than the mortality rate for depression. The biggest risk factors for developing an eating disorder are a family history of eating disorders or anxiety. The number-one trigger for developing an eating disorder is dieting, closely followed by unintentional weight loss in someone who’s susceptible.
“So—when writing about them, keep in mind that they are not ‘about’ vanity or looks or control. They are not illnesses of choice. No one chooses to have an eating disorder, and conversely, no one can simply choose to recover. Often when the media covers body image and eating disorders they do it in an accusatory way — either ‘accusing’ women of gaining/losing weight, or, ironically, ‘accusing’ them of having eating disorders.
“Also keep in mind the difference between disordered eating and eating disorders. EDs, as stated above, are diagnosable disorders. There’s some disagreement about exact diagnostic criteria, and EDs are definitely under-reported. Still, they’re relatively rare. Disordered eating, on the other hand, is disturbingly common, affecting up to 80 percent of women (I don’t know the stats for men, which are lower but still relevant). Probably everyone in this culture engages in disordered eating at some point. Any time you think, ‘If I eat that I have to go to the gym and work it off,’ or ‘I’ll have that dessert and then skip breakfast and lunch,’ that’s disordered eating. Which is a huge problem in this culture, but it’s not the same as an eating disorder.
“The thinking on both cause and treatment of eating disorders is shifting dramatically, from a psychological to a more neurobiological/biosocial perspective.”
A final point: This is the kind of story that may help people realize they need help. So be sure that you tell readers about campus/local resources they can use. For national perspective, Brown recommends the National Eating Disorders Association and Maudsley Parents. Brown also is available to reporters. Here is her contact information.
This post was amended Oct. 5 to correct Harriet Brown’s title to associate professor.