The Impact of Media on Eating Disorders: Dissonance-Based Treatment and Body Positivity

A fascinating new study has emerged that uses media to aid eating disorder treatment. While it is important to note that this is not a methodology Columbus Park currently uses at our New York City based eating disorder clinic, we wanted to share its findings with you as we continuously monitor new treatments and interventions to best serve our clients.

There is no single known cause of body dissatisfaction or disordered eating. With new and improving research, it is has become increasingly clear that media does indeed contribute to diseases such as anorexia and bulimia. Numerous correlational and experimental studies have linked exposure to the thin ideal in mass media to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating among women and men.

The influence of media on eating disorders is most pronounced when working with adolescents and young adults.

This is no surprise, as NEDA states that the second most common source of sexually objectified images of girls and women is the advertisements found in teen magazines directed at adolescent girls.

A professor at Cornell College in Iowa, Dr. Melinda Green, has developed a dissonance-based eating disorder program that helps women combat societal messages that define self-worth by appearance. The dissonance-based eating disorder approach is centered around helping women and girls understand that appearance is not everything. Women in this program are urged to work together to criticize media messages that suggest women and girls must be a certain size or weight to be considered beautiful. Women who were recruited via social media, fliers posted in practitioners’ offices, local schools, and announcements in local media, worked to combat societal messages that teach individuals to base their self-worth on appearance.

Following such discussions and interventions, women who took part in the program showed fewer eating disorder symptoms.

Simultaneously, reports of anxiety and negative emotions lessened. Dr. Green noted that women showed higher level of self-esteem were less likely to idealize a thin body type and expressed more self-love. Lastly, they were less likely to show several cardiac risk factors associated with eating disorders.

How has this project achieved such lofty goals? According to Eric Stice, a scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, “humans fundamentally want to maintain consistency between what we do and what we think.” After articulating healthier views for an extended period, an individual’s behaviors will actually shift to match these attitudes in a bid to reduce dissonance between their words and actions.

Recently, we have begun to see this idea that changing thoughts can change behavior popping up in different forms all over social media.

While not in the form of a research study, individuals have been working to challenge existing definitions of beauty via the body positive movement. This empowering movement has recently gained traction due to popular Instagram campaigns (e.g. #healthyisbeautiful) and celebrity endorsements. You may have seen advertisements and editorials that emerged as a result of this movement. One example is Aerie, the teen loungewear and lingerie brand. Allure Magazine writes, “this brand which is part of American Eagle Outfitters, just released its campaign titled “Share Your Spark.” It features depictions of women of varying body types that have not been retouched. Aerie hopes to transform the media industry by encouraging women to discuss important issues like body image, self-care and education.” The response to the body positive movement has been overwhelming and parallels messages within Dissonance Theory.

The findings from this Eastern Iowa study have helped to solidify the impact of media on eating disorders and has helped to inform best practices in eating disorder treatment and prevention.

Want more information on the interventions utilized at the Columbus Park Eating Disorder Clinic? Learn more.