Positive Images

Television networks such as MTV and magazines such as Seventeen are frequently criticized for distorting the body image of America’s teens by glorifying slender body types. Critics argue that the media influences teens to develop eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia out of a need to fit into the cookie-cutter image of feminine beauty presented by the media. While these arguments are justified, they ignore the complexity of the causes of eating disorders as well as the many people who are motivated by the media’s message to develop healthier eating and exercise habits. Anorexia and bulimia are complex diseases that were first diagnosed long before the thinness craze of the late 20th century. Anorexia was first noted in the 16th century in the medieval church, where women starved themselves for their beliefs. The issue may have been exacerbated by the modern media, but the disease is more than a cultural artifact or response to the American thinness-craze. New research suggests that the cause of anorexia may be genetic, while others believe that it often a behavior pattern adopted by people with underlying mental conditions as a way of coping with depression. In either case, a conscious effort on the part of the American media to end the thinness craze would not likely solve the problem. People genetically predisposed to eating disorders would most likely continue to suffer from them, while people who adopt anorexic and bulimic habits as a way of coping with depression would likely adopt other self-destructive behaviors in response to another trend glorified by the media and pop culture. It is vital to distinguish between ‘thinness’ and ‘fitness’ as they are portrayed by the modern media. While runway models may by rail-thin, teen soap stars, reality-show protagonists, and television personalities generally maintain healthier, curvaceous, and more muscular appearances. Perhaps the people most directly affected by this fitness craze are not those with clinically diagnosed anorexia or bulimia, but rather the many girls who feel motivated, even pressured, to closely watch what they eat by what they see on TV. While this may have been an issue in the proceedings decades, I argue that the new muscular female body image that is currently glorified by the media does not encourage unhealthy eating habits. Though there are many actresses and models who defy the trend, an overall shift in the last few decades is clearly identifiable. Students who have endured even one health class in their lives know that the way to a contoured stomach, toned arms and legs, and a healthy, muscular appearance is exercise and healthy eating, NOT starving oneself. Today’s youth are magazine-erudite enough to understand that starvation causes muscles to wither away and leads to an unhealthy overall appearance and that over-exercising negates muscle growth. Every month the many pieces of prescriptive literature aimed at teens feature fit and attractive actresses on their cover, with blurbs on how to get a ‘beach body’ in a few short weeks. But when you open these magazines, you find sensible, healthy exercise and eating programs—not dangerous crash diets. In MTV interviews, pop stars and celebrities are frequently asked how they maintain their figures, and the most common answer is a sensible, controlled diet like “The Zone” and a well-designed cardio and strength training work out. There is a logical correlation between the rise in popularity of television in the last half-century and the increasing rate of obesity. But television is not likely to go anywhere in the near future; while Americans continue to spend hours a day in front of the TV, it is logical to portray active and healthy lifestyles rather than unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles. It is easy to attack TV networks and magazines for portraying fit, skinny people with unrealistic proportions, but we must ask ourselves what the consequences of the alternative would be. While the fitness craze may cause discouragement and hopelessness in some people and elicit unhealthy hyper-responses in others, many people view the media’s fitness obsession in an objective manner and are motivated to develop healthier eating and exercise habits. It is more important to concern ourselves with the health of our population than the minority of people who feel discouraged and dejected, rather than motivated, by the media’s obsession with a fit figure. While the media’s fitness craze may contribute to some extreme responses and lead to dejection in some individuals, it motivates many others to take positive steps towards developing a healthier lifestyle.