by Jarrah Hodge
On February 10 I had a unique opportunity to speak to the House of Commons Status of Women Committee on eating disorders, media and gender. The committee, which is made up of Members of Parliament from the major parties, had recently voted the following:
“It was agreed, — That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the Committee conduct a study of eating disorders amongst girls and women, including the nature of these diseases, what treatments are providing the most relief to patients and where they are available, how family physicians can learn more about eating disorders and how to treat them, what roadblocks exist to better serve girls and women with eating disorders, and what resources relevant stakeholders need to improve the lives of these patients.”
Basically, the committee is studying eating disorders, particularly among Canadian girls and women, and considering potential service gaps and areas for improvement.
My name was put forward by NDP Status of Women Critic Niki Ashton. Given that I’m not a doctor and there were many clinical experts and people with personal or family experience already speaking, I thought it made most sense for me to bring in feminist analysis of how media images of women factor into eating disorders.
Over the weekend leading up to the appearance via videoconference, I had a lot of help getting a firmer understanding of the situation facing people with eating disorders in Canada, and the research that has been done showing links between media and eating disorders, and the potential for media literacy education to help with prevention and treatment. Many members of the Women, Action & The Media (WAM!) Vancouver listserv shared their ideas and resources, but I owe particular thanks to Sharon from the fabulous website Adios Barbie, Kalamity from Fat Panic! Vancouver, and Angela from Project True.
With their help, I put together a 10-minute opening statement, which I will paste below the jump along with links to my references, since those don’t appear in the online transcript. On at the same time as me was Wendy Preskow, founder of the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, who told the heart-wrenching and powerful story of her daughter’s struggle with bulimia and getting the care she needs. After our statements, the committee members asked us questions.
If you want to read the full transcript with all the questions from MPs and comments from other witnesses, you can find it here. Or you can listen to the audio recording here. My testimony starts half-way in – after the first hour of testimony by Dr. Leora Pinhas, Psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children; and Dr. Gail McVey, Senior Associate Scientist, Community Health Systems Resource Group, Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders.
Thank you to the committee for inviting me to appear today.
My name is Jarrah Hodge and l’m a feminist blogger and activist from Vancouver. I run a multi-author feminist blog called Gender Focus.
One of our main goals is to analyze the ways in which women are represented in media. Through that l’ve been involved with Women, Action and the Media, Vancouver. WAM is a group of media makers, activists, academics and supporters working collaboratively to advance women’s media participation and improve representation. Several people in that group shared their experiences and helped guide my research for today, so l have to send a big thanks to them.
I’m sure that you’ve heard from other witnesses about the serious issues we’re discussing today and statistics such as eating disorders are among the 10 leading causes of disability among young women. We know that girls as young as five to women in their senior years experience eating disorders.
The situation women and girls are facing should not lead us to marginalize or forget about male patients; that can only lead to greater barriers for them to access treatment. The gender difference points to a real need for research and analysis that takes gender into account. l’m glad to see this committee taking on some of that work.
It is widely known that eating disorders arise from a complex interaction of biological, genetic, psychological, behavioural, and social factors.
One of the key social factors, and my focus for today, is the influence of media and advertising.
It’s not hard to see that in popular media, thinness is rewarded while fatness is hidden, or when it is shown, deeply shamed. Today’s thin ideal is thinner than past generations. It’s thinner also than the general population today.
From a very young age girls learn that their body is for attracting instead of acting, which makes achieving the beauty ideal a crucial and lifelong project.
Research last year out of Pepperdine University examined girls ages three to five and found they had already internalized weight-based stereotypes. Girls were more likely to characterize the thinner figures as nice, smart, cute, neat, and quiet, while heavier figures were characterized as mean, stupid, friendless, sloppy, ugly, and loud. It’s not a leap to see how these attitudes can turn inwards.
The Canadian Mental Health Association states that media glamourization of so-called ideal bodies coupled with the view that dieting is a normal activity can obscure a person’s eating problems.
Over the past few decades, several studies have investigated the links between media images, women’s body image, and eating disorders. in a meta-analysis of these studies, Shelly Grabe and her colleagues noted, “Research from prospective and longitudinal designs has identified body dissatisfaction as one of the most consistent and robust risk factors for eating disorders such as bulimia.”¹
Grabe looked at 77 studies, including experimental studies in labs and correlational studies that compare women’s real media consumption with their body image over time. They found an overall relationship between the amount of media consumed and higher eating disorder symptomatology, as well as other body image issues.
The evidence is compelling and points to some actions that can be taken. Before I get to that, I have to acknowledge three significant gaps in the research and in the way we talk and think about eating disorders generally.
The first is that only focusing on the thin ideal can prevent us from thinking about how the shame and policing of fatness plays in. Kalamity Hildebrandt of Fat Panic! Vancouver says that troubled eating behaviours aren’t just about wanting the carrot of the thin ideal. She says there’s also a stick in our culture and perpetuated in our media that polices against fatness. It says, “Look at what we do to fat people every day.”
Going back to the Pepperdine study, the fact that fat equalled friendless, ugly, mean, stupid, and loud is just as important as what thin means to girls. The study author, Jennifer Harriger, said, “A lot of the three-year-olds said to me, ‘I hate her; she’s fat.’ Or, ‘Her stomach is big; I don’t want to be her.’ That was really concerning to me, that children so young already had such strong beliefs about what it is to be overweight.”
When it comes to disordered eating, assumptions around weight and fatness can be devastating. Many hospital-based programs will refuse to admit patients based on their not being thin enough. There are hospitals that are forced to tell people that they have to get sicker before they can get treatment. Having weight as a deciding criterion shows an appallingly simplistic understanding of the physical effects of different eating disorders and how different factors factor in for different individuals.
We need to make sure we aren’t reinforcing a society where behaviours considered disordered in thin people, such as extreme dieting and purging, are accepted and even encouraged in fat people.
Another gap I have to note here is Grabe’s observation that there has been extreme neglect of women of colour in this research area. Moving forward that’s something that needs to change. We need more and better research on how women of colour and first nations women experience eating disorders, how that relates to media messages, and to what extent there is or isn’t access to culturally competent treatment in Canada.
Finally, we need more consideration of how LGBT people’s experiences with eating disorders are shaped by their identities. For LGBT people, experiences of violence, bullying, and fear of rejection may be greater and can play into the risk for disordered eating. We also need to ask whether they face any additional barriers to treatment that straight or cis people may not.
One thing we do know from the research that has been done is that there are places we can start acting now. Most importantly, in terms of the areas that I’m looking at today, we need to introduce new, and expand existing, media literacy programs in our schools. Groesz, Levine and Martin define media literacy as education that raises awareness of media use, includes analysis of content and intentions, and promotes participant action in the form of media advocacy or activism.²
I want to turn briefly to another meta-analysis, this time of the efficacy of media literacy programs. Szabo reviewed studies of programs from across Europe and North America and found that media literacy programs proved to be effective with the potential to reduce general and specific risk factors for eating disorders.
However, it’s likely not enough to set aside a short period of time in a classroom one afternoon to deliver one-way information.
The same meta-study found that the most effective media literacy prevention programs were complex programs which contained elements that focused not solely on body image and problems related to eating habits, but also put emphasis on combatting social pressure and improved critical thinking in relation to societal standards and media messages. Yager and O’Dea confirm this finding. When done right, they found that programs with media literacy components were among the most successful at helping youth deal with body image and eating disorders.
I have more information on some specific programs that have been researched and shown to be effective, but I’m not going to have time to go into that right now. Maybe we can get into that in questions.
To conclude, l’ve only addressed one factor in eating disorders and their effect on girls and women, that being the influence of the media and culture on body image, but it is a significant factor and one that should not be left out of this study.
Although I suggested areas where we need more study, and focused on recommendations around media literacy education that would be aimed primarily at prevention, I also want to echo what has been said by many organizations and advocates working on eating disorder issues in Canada, which is that urgent changes are needed now.
As we saw in Nova Scotia last week, there are opportunities to make sure health care professionals are more sensitively trained to help people with eating disorders. Fundamentally, there are simply not enough in-patient spaces when and where people need them. Residential spaces are too costly for many. Financial means and geography should not be barriers to accessing treatment, nor should one-size-fits-all assessments like ruling people out based on weighing too much. We also need to address the serious lack of continuing care options available.
Thank you again to the committee for your time today. I look forward to your questions.
¹ Grabe, S., Ward, L.M., & Hyde, J.S. (2008). The Role of Media in Body Image Concerns Among Women: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental and Correlational Studies. American Psychological Association Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 460-476.
² Groesz, L.M., Levine, M.P. & Murnen, S.K. (2002). The Effect of Experimental Presentation of Thin Media Images on Body Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.