UK psychiatrists propose editorial code to counter media support of eating disorders

New York Fashion Week wrapped up recently and London Fashion Week is underway, which means images of dangerously thin, overwhelmingly white models are everywhere in the media. Of course, such images are ubiquitous year round, often coupled with articles about the latest diet sure to make you impossibly thin, too.
The Eating Disorders Section of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the UK’s main professional organization of psychiatrists, has begun a campaign to oppose the media’s over-representation of incredibly thin models and glamorizing of eating disorders. They are calling for a new editorial code and a symbol placed on images that have been airbrushed.

“Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are serious mental illnesses,” said [Dr. Adrienne] Key.
“Although biological and genetic factors play an important role in the development of these disorders, psychological and social factors are also significant,” she added, saying that was why the RCPsych was urging the media “to take greater responsibility for the messages it sends out”.

As a person who’s struggled with eating disorders I agree the media has a big influence. When nearly every image is telling you the standard of beauty is thin as well as cisgender, white, and able bodied, and you’re already struggling with your relationship with eating, it’s hard not to try to fit that image.
As Amanda Marcotte points out, in the US there seems to be only two polarized approaches to food: overeating or anorexia. And anorexia is encouraged. Diets are supposed to be the answer to obesity (which the media seems to think is the worst thing ever), but too often they aren’t a way to shift one’s long term relationship with food and physical activity. Instead they’re a structured form of disordered eating, often with other people encouraging you, that are socially acceptable to speak about positively in public. The “Air Diet” may be an extreme example, but not by much.
Where’s the representation of an the option beyond overeating or starving yourself? Where’s the space to negotiate a positive relationship with your body and the food you eat? I agree with the psychiatrists, the press is outright encouraging disordered eating and a negative body image. It’s way past time they stopped.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • cattrack2

    “Where’s the representation of an the option beyond overeating or starving yourself? Where’s the space to negotiate a positive relationship with your body and the food you eat?”
    I think most ppl think of diets as a temporary way to permanently reduce their weight. Diet for 3 months, lose 20lbs, and you’ll never have to worry again. That’s the conventional wisdom & thats why diets “fail”. People lose the weight & then put it right back on by going back to the same eating habits that made them overweight in the 1st place. Diets have to be permanent & sustainable to work. As metabolism slows ppl have to constantly adjust their equilibrium to a balance of eating & exercise that works. This only seems logical but for some reason its sorely misunderstood.

  • Dawn.

    I also agree with the UK psychiatrists. Eating disorders and disordered eating habits are not caused by media depictions of cisgender, white, able-bodied, and dangerously thin models. But they are encouraged by those depictions.
    I struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager. When I was seventeen I collapsed at a friend’s house and ended up at the hospital with various nutritional deficiencies. My response to the psychiatrist they called in was, “But I’m 5’6″ and weigh 110 pounds. I look fat as hell! How could I be sick already?” I expected to get sick. I just didn’t expect to get sick when I was still “so fat.”
    I ripped pictures of particularly thin models out of magazines and taped them to my walls, oddly enough along with photos of the Black Panther Party. I visited pro-anorexic websites. Whenever I posed for pictures, I would try to echo the submissive, fragile, youthful poses the models on my wall did. I would make sure my protruding collar bones and swan neck were prominent in the picture. I would hunch my shoulders forward, making my torso and shoulders appear small. Those pictures weren’t just a guide for being impossibly thin. They became a guide for being Lolita.
    A friend of mine at the time specifically sought out the Lolita comparison. She dressed like a pedophile’s dream and spoke of the character Humbert Humbert like he was her celebrity crush. She also had an eating disorder, equating thinness with girlishness. ‘Cause young girls are tiny and that’s super sexy, right? We loved the idea that we were “tight” and “tiny” and lusted after by all ages of men just because of our youth and size. I felt a masochistic thrill whenever I was treated like a plaything, like an object in someone’s fantasy. Looking back on our behavior, it disgusts and frightens me. How many other girls thought/think like this?
    They are calling for a new editorial code and a symbol placed on images that have been airbrushed.
    Placing a symbol on images that have been airbrushed is a great idea. I think it would discourage photographers and editors from airbrushing their models, because who would want that symbol plastered all over their magazine? I think it would further stigmatize airbrushing, which it should be. These images are unrealistic in the most fundamental ways – even these cisgender, incredibly thin, white, able-bodied models don’t look like that. No one does, hence the airbrushing instead of just finding a model who looks that way.
    Sorry for the long comment. This issue just effects me in a serious way.

  • Miriam/Heddy

    You ask, “Where’s the representation of an the option beyond overeating or starving yourself?”
    Perhaps we might start on feministing by not pathologizing fat bodies.
    Just as it would be appallingly anti-feminist to assume that every thin woman is starving herself, so, too, is it appalling antifeminist to assume that every fat woman is overeating.

  • Anna

    i dont think thats what jos was saying. jos isnt saying that fat people are automatically overeating and skinny people anorexic, she is referring more to the “diet-industrial-complex” media representation fed to female (and male!) consumers. the media is always telling us we need to try this weight watchers diet, take this diet pill, buy this new workout machine, etc. etc. in order to compensate for our “obese” American lifestyles. people on tv are either incredibly skinny or obese and trying to lose weight (i.e. biggest loser). we are lacking a happy medium.
    – community moderator

  • bradley

    I’m sure if this “kitemark” idea ever comes to pass, it will be used sparingly and judiciously, just like censorship always is.