Media Literacy and Eating Disorders (November 2020)
[Margot Rittenhouse, Author]
The old saying “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” is true in many situations. In the realm of eating disorders, if you don’t educate and inform yourself, you’ll fall for a lot as well.
There is no limit to the falsehoods, lies, and promises that media will make to vulnerable individuals in order to perpetuate unrealistic beauty ideals and make money.
An individuals’ ability to critically analyze and evaluate the media for credibility is known as “Media Literacy.”
Essentially, someone that is media literate can see advertisements and media messaging and determine whether it is realistic or not.
Media literacy plays an unsurprising yet massive role in eating disorder pathology and psychology.
Those that lack in media literacy are at risk for what is known as “media internalization,” “the extent to which an individual invests in societal ideals of size and appearance to the point that they become rigid, guiding principles .”
Children and teens are particularly at risk for media internalization, as the media shows them images of unrealistic societal ideals from an early age, creating a foundational understanding of how they “should” appear and what they “should” value.
If left unchecked, these internalized ideals can move an individual to engage in in unhealthy and dangerous behaviors to attain “perfection.”
Learning media literacy allows individuals to become more educated consumers of media, creating a protective factor from possible pressures of our society.
Some helpful ways of teaching media literacy involves, first and foremost, making discussions of media, societal ideals of beauty, and feelings about oneself an ongoing conversation.
Those that discuss these aspects with their children and teens or among their own peers are more likely to consider the realistic aspects of the images they are fed.
Talk to those in your life about the images shown on TV, acknowledging what is attainable and what isn’t, what word use is problematic or hurtful, what is Photoshopped or edited. All of these might seem obvious to you, however, if we don’t point these things out to vulnerable populations such as children or teens, they won’t learn the difference between what is reality and what is not.
Instead, they will internalize media messages about dieting, Photoshop, weight, body image, exercise, beauty, worth, etc.
Discussing the motivations behind media messaging is also a helpful way to gage media literacy, as individuals can consider that what they are being told isn’t to “help” them or bring them happiness as much as it is to sell a product.
Also, learn to differentiate between positive and negative media messaging, as it isn’t always as cut-and-dry as it may seem. Many campaigns are now pushing a message of self-love, which I wonderful, but, they are still attempting to sell a product that will you help you find that inner self-love and confidence. What they aren’t selling you is the truth of the matter that you can find these things without using any product or clothing or changing your external features and that the feelings are longer-lasting when you do.
This understanding now goes beyond commercials or advertisements, as even the social media lives of our own friends or peers may be falsely represented with photoshop apps, filters, and the posting of only life highlights.
Knowledge is power and the knowledge that there is no one way to appear, that worth is not gleaned by external appearance, weight, or body shape or size, and that “perfection” does not exist can help to protect anyone from internalizing unrealistic ideals and dangerous behaviors.
 Wilksch, S. et al. (2008). Preliminary controlled comparison of programs designed to reduce risk of eating disorders targeting perfectionism and media literacy. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 47:8.