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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Body Image And The Media: Getting The Balance Right

In a previous life I  worked as a marketing executive for a major magazine publisher. Magazines sell to niche markets by providing content that the market wants to read. This content doesn’t always make people feel happier. Psychologists try to make people happier. There is an uneasy marriage between these two roles. Magazines have been slated for their portrayal of very thin, emaciated women. And they are now being condemned for their obsession with celebrity weights and body shapes.

There is no point in trying to categorise the media as good or bad, its purpose is to mediate between the individual and his culture, provide targeted information and forge invisible connections with like-minded people, at the very least. Magazines appeal to our dreams and possibly bring to the surface our greatest anxieties so that they can help us to do something about them.

So it has to be their purpose to create insecurity about our size and shape then provide solutions like yet another weight loss plan. This leads to some contradictory features like a recipe for chocolate cake alongside an article on how to lose weight fast. Magazines have been like this since I was young, but there are some recent, more worrying trends. The one that most comes to mind is a growth in the number of publications aimed at men's fitness and health. They are remarkable for their front pages showing  muscled torsos with the well defined 6-pack. Undoubtedly many of these photos have been digitally adjusted. But men are increasingly senstitive about their bodies too and many are taking steroids to try and build up muscle and lose fat. That can't be good at all.

Women's magazines have deflected the argument that they are responsible for "an epidemic of anorexia". They argue that anorexia is not a slimming illness and to some extent they are correct. Notwithstanding,  a social conscience is creeping in with respect to correcting harms. In 2009, Alexandra Schulman, Editor of Vogue wrote to to designers urging them to provide samples in reasonable sizes – size four rather than size zero; well it is a start.

The media is also giving us good quality information via documentaries, dramas and helplines to address potential harms. Yet this can also lead to some confusion. With conflicting concerns about the obesity epidemic and the eating disorder epidemic, some of the information we get is muddled. People say to me, I don't want my child to get fat but I don't want to risk her getting an eating disorder either. How do we get the balance right?

To be continued........

If you have concerns about body image, body dysmorphic disorder and eating concerns visit http://www.eating-disorder.org.uk/. We could save your life.

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