It’s long been held that waif-thin models posing in fashion and beauty magazines encourage young women to follow unhealthy eating habits—possibly bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Now, researchers at Brigham Young University have discovered “thin is in” messages aren’t the only ones leading to eating disorders—the “hard bodies” in women’s health and fitness magazines do also.
Mike Fillon has written about health topics in the mainstream media for more than fifteen years. He is the author of Real RDAs for Real People, Ephedra Fact & Fiction, and The Good Digestion Guide. Fillon has a master of science degree from the State University of New York Maritime College and is a member of the AMWA.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
In a study published in the June 2001 issue of the American Journal of Health Education, BYU researchers interviewed girls at two high schools near Salt Lake City, Utah. They found those practicing certain unhealthy weight-control practices were significantly more likely to be frequent readers of women’s health and fitness magazines. They also discovered girls who read these types of magazines frequently scored higher on a test that measures anorexic tendencies than girls who didn’t read them.
Steven R. Thomsen, associate professor of communications at BYU and lead author on the article, said while the researchers couldn’t say reading the magazines causes eating disorders, they do believe many young women who peruse these magazines increase their risk of developing an eating disorder. “We believe women’s health and fitness magazines may be an important sociocultural influence in the development or perpetuating of eating disorder attitudes,” said Thomsen.
The two most common eating disorders are:
Anorexia nervosa: Characterized by intense fear of gaining weight. Behavior includes excessive weighing, excessive measuring of body parts, and persistently using a mirror to check body size. Weight loss is viewed as an impressive achievement and an example of extraordinary self-discipline.
Bulimia nervosa: Involves binge eating and compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain. Between 80 to 90 percent of bulimics will induce vomiting. Other behaviors include misuse of laxatives, fasting and excessive exercise.
A Vested Interest
Many scientists pursue their research interest based on intellectual curiosity or to investigate a subject that intrigues them. Although both factors played a part in Thomsen’s research, his personal life also had a role; his teenage daughter has an eating disorder. “In my family, we’ve been touched directly by eating disorders and had extra motivation to do research on them,” he said.
Prior to this research, Thomsen studied the relationship between women’s beauty and fashion magazines, and the effect of television on eating disorder behaviors. Thomsen began this latest study after noting the correlation between the growing circulation of women’s health and fitness magazines in the late 1990s and the increased dieting rates of teenage girls during the same time frame. Thomsen, along with Lora Beth Brown, a BYU food science and nutrition professor, and Michelle Weber, then a BYU undergraduate, decided to investigate whether the two trends were related.
In their survey of 498 sophomores, juniors and seniors, the researchers asked the girls how often they read health and fitness magazines; whether, in the previous year, they used laxatives, diet pills, made themselves throw up, or limited their caloric intake to under 1,200 calories per day. They also administered the Mizes Anorectic Cognitions Scale, a 33-item test measuring the prevalence of anorexic thinking patterns.
The research team found evidence of unhealthy weight-control practices among the girls.
- About 11 percent of them admitted using laxatives for weight loss or weight control
- 15 percent said they had taken appetite control or weight-loss pills
- 9 percent said they had made themselves vomit
- 52 percent indicated they had restricted their calories to 1,200 a day or less.
In correlating the health and fitness magazine reading habits with the above characteristics Thomsen et al. found:
- Almost 80 percent of the girls who made themselves vomit were frequent readers of health and fitness magazines
- Of those who used appetite suppressants or weight-control pills, about 73 percent were frequent readers of these magazines
- About 60 percent of the girls who had used laxatives in the past year were also frequent readers of these magazines
- Among frequent readers, those who restricted their calories to under 1,200 a day outnumbered nearly two to one those who did not
With these numbers in hand, the researchers concluded there were moderate to strong links between those unhealthy practices and the reading of health and fitness magazines in their study.
On the test for anorexic tendencies, the average score of the 46 percent of the girls who read the magazines at least once a month was significantly higher than the average scores of the girls who read the magazines moderately or infrequently. About seven percent of the overall sample scored in the same range in which clinically diagnosed anorexics typically register.
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Thomsen said although they found a correlation between eating habits and reading material, it doesn’t mean one causes the other. However, he said frequently reading health and fitness magazines could indicate that a young woman is proceeding on a path toward anorexic thinking patterns. “What’s not known is whether it is that thinking that prompts her to read the magazines or whether the magazines prompt that thinking,” said Thomsen.
Thomsen said parents shouldn’t panic if they find their daughter reading a health and fitness magazine, but try to understand her motivations. “If it leads to some kind of obsessive behavior regarding exercise and weight control, then I would be concerned. She may be getting a skewed perception of what women ought to be and what women ought to look like.”
Parents Often In the Dark About Problem
People are often in the dark about their child’s eating disorder, because she or he—yes, males can have them also—will go to great lengths to conceal it. In Adelaide University in Australia, doctoral candidate Megan Warin has spent the past three years researching the day-to-day social effects anorexia has on 46 women and men in Australia, Canada and Scotland.
“Many of the practices surrounding anorexia (such as purging) are shameful and done in private and secrecy, and people did not want others to know so would go to great lengths to hide the fact that they were doing these things,” said Warin.
Warin said many of the people she interviewed talked about feeling alienated, or out of place in their families. “Nearly all refused to eat with others, and they often refused to engage in social activities, especially with families,” she said.
Warin found that people often limit their socialization to others with similar problems—often while seeking treatment. “When people came together in treatment settings, they talked to each other about their practices of weight loss and swapped information and ideas. They also shared tips on how to hide food from the doctors and nurses.”