By Mélanie Guénette-Robert, Canada
For a long time now, eating disorders have been automatically associated with the fashion industry in the minds of many people. Admittedly, it can seem comforting to find a cause, and it would be a relief to be able to blame just one thing for so many people’s problems. If only it were that simple!
It can never be said enough: eating disorders are extremely complicated. They are mental health problems that develop, gradually and unnoticed, throughout a person’s life, as a result of a multitude of factors and stressful events. It is wrong to assume that people with eating disorders all inspire themselves with supermodels in fashion magazines and try to look like them. This is a very oversimplified explanation, just like the assumption that all models are anorexic. The word “anorexic” in itself is painful to hear. Be aware of these types of hurtful words and their implications. People suffer from anorexia, they fight against anorexia…but they are not “anorexic”. Anorexia does not define the person. Beyond the illness, these men and women, who often seem lost in their troubles, have their own personalities. They have desires, dreams and hopes to pursue.
So where does the association between eating disorders and the media come from?
Let’s get back to our original topic: the fashion and beauty industry. It’s true that the media’s messages about weight and appearance can have an impact on our relationship with our bodies, with food, with our conception of what it means to be a man or a woman, and our vision of health and attractiveness. But despite the images presented to us in magazines, online and on television, our families and close friends remain the biggest influence on us. And the media, in response to our demands, offers us images that make us dream… and spend money. It’s a vicious circle! We are so accustomed to hearing, non-stop, the same discourse about weight, body, femininity and masculinity, that we begin to interiorize these messages. The simple fact that we deny being influenced by them is proof of our assimilation. We are molded by our culture’s norms and standards. And that’s normal! Fighting every day against these messages, messages that we’ve been shown over and over since childhood, is no easy task.
The media can have a role to play, since it can encourage unrealistic standards of beauty and have us believe that happiness and success go hand in hand with weight loss or muscle mass gain. The media teaches us that the body is an object that can be controlled with a little willpower and discipline, thanks to diets, weird new products and intense training regimens.
Every year, these associations lead thousands of people to start (or re-start, for the Nth time) dieting and to develop problematic behaviours revolving around food and exercise.
These behaviours risk getting more and more severe. Obsessions related to weight and diets can take hold, and lead the person to gradually develop an eating disorder. This is, of course, more likely for people who present other risk factors (ex: psychological or biological). Starting a diet for the first time is the biggest risk factor regarding the likelihood of a person developing an eating disorder.
So the question is, how to we prevent these terrible repercussions? It’s probably too optimistic to believe that one day these messages and images will cease to exist. We can sanction companies that publish them. But is that really THE solution? Especially knowing that a large portion of the population believes and adheres to these messages, or even encourages them?
A New Approach in Quebec
In this province, we encourage the fashion and beauty industry to be a model. We invite them to be an agent of change to help diminish social and cultural pressure to fit into a specific body image. Through the Chartre québécois pour une image corporelle saine et diversifiée (the Quebec charter for a healthy and diversified body image), we encourage people in the industry to engage in positive action. The companies that sign onto the charter agree to promote more diverse and more attainable images of the human body. One of these companies is Clin d’oeil magazine, which celebrated its 35th anniversary by releasing a new editorial line. Since then, Clin d’œil has been calling on models of different ages, shapes, sizes and origins. . The magazine also uses its website to host a blog called Vive la diversité CD. The blog covers subjects like the pressure to attain a certain body image, different body types, and self-esteem.
You might say that this is not a big deal, but I would answer that for this industry, actions like those taken by Clin d’oeil represent a challenge and a huge step forward. Little by little, other companies with take their first steps and the public will support their initiatives.
You can also take part in the movement and sign the charter. Be critical of what you see.* Be a model for those around you! Help us educate people about eating disorders, the challenges they pose, and their consequences. In order to accomplish this, ANEB invites you to participate in World Eating Disorder Action Day on June 2.
About Mélanie Guénette-Robert, head of education and prevention at ANEB (Anorexie et Boulimie Québec)
Mélanie Guénette-Robert is a graduate in sexology, with a Masters in research and intervention. She has been responsible for education and prevention at ANEB (Anorexie et Boulimie Québec) since 2010. She specializes in raising awareness of eating disorders and teaching people about them, as well as sexology education. She co-ordinates activities related to Eating Disorder Awareness Week in Quebec. Mélanie also collaborates in the publication of numerous articles on blogs like Boucle Magazine, a webzine devoted to values that are important to her, such as encouraging a healthy, diversified body image and a good relationship with food.
*I invite you to consult and use the guide de l’Association pour la santé publique au Québec (revised in part by ANEB) in order to make a complaint against unhealthy images and messages that you see in the media regarding weight, and pictures depicting extreme thinness.
Join Mélanie in supporting World Eating Disorders Action Day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter @WorldEDDay and hashtag #WeDoAct, #WorldEDActionDay, @WorldEatingDisordersAction on Instagram and World Eating Disorders Action Day on Facebook.