The Deleteriousness of Visual Depictions of Eating Disorders

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I'm in the ninth grade. My latest assignment for my English Honor's class was to write an argumentative essay concerning a critical issue that teens and young adults are facing. I chose to write about anorexia and how it is depicted through photos and video and the impact which that has on society (a negative one). If you agree with me at the end, then I will be satisfied with the essay and submit it. If not, tell me why, and I'll revise to make my argument stronger.

The Deleteriousness of Visual Depictions of Eating Disorders

Anorexia is by far one of the most well-known eating disorders of this age, typically characterized by extreme thinness and a great aversion to eating for fear of gaining weight, yet society’s attempts to raise awareness of the sickness and to combat it are only perpetuating the disorder (Ross-Flanigan). If one is to search up anorexia on the internet these days, he will immediately be barraged with photo after photo of emaciated bodies in little and sometimes no clothing, oftentimes altered to appear skinnier than in reality. While these photos are intended to shock and emit fear from their viewers, calling spectators to action against the disorder, or at the very least, cautioning them against developing unhealthy eating habits, their true impact is instead dehumanizing, propagating, and oftentimes deadly (Eating Disorders). Indeed, the leading reason that anorexia is becoming increasingly common is due to the publication of anorexic images in a vain attempt to combat the issue, the fashion industry, and the allowance of the publication of Pro-Ana sites, all of which visually depict unnaturally skinny bodies, so, in order to discontinue the both intentional and accidental promotion and dissemination of anorexic behaviors, society needs to stop publicly displaying its effects.

One of the best examples of visual media proving more of a hindrance than a help to the struggle against anorexia is the Isabelle Caro controversy, a situation in which one company’s attempts to show the unglamorous realism of the body of an anorexic went terribly amiss (Ferreday). In this case, a French company got together with a photographer and an anorexic model to shoot a photo that they hoped would dissuade people from admiring the anorexic figure and open their eyes to the truly garish appearance of the wasted body. The photographer, Oliviero Toscani; the subject, Isabelle Caro; and the business that wished the photo to be taken, Nolita, held no disrespect towards anorexics, wanting merely to disillusion young women about the type of body that anorexics wound up acquiring (Ferreday). However, this bold move was met with skepticism and fury by the general public. Many decry Nolita’s billboard for several reasons. Some were concerned that Caro was being exploited for her disorder, that she was being dehumanized in the shoot, viewed as nothing but her medical condition, while others were more concerned for the wellbeing of the billboard’s viewers. “The guy [Toscani] must be an idiot... if this guy honestly thinks girls (or boys, or adults even--stereotypes suck) who are eating disordered are going to look at this image and think, "Gee, I'd better stop before I end up looking like that," well, he's a…moron...when I saw this image, my first thought was "Oh my god, I am such a cow." I then launched a series of mental calculations to try to figure out exactly how long it would take on a 300 calorie-a-day diet to get myself looking like the woman in the ad. (Ferreday, Relying on Intellect 2007). " This anorexia-blogger who digitally published her criticism online is stating something that should be rather blatant. Photos of those possessing eating disorders are praised and promoted within the mentally sick community of Pro-Anorexics, and not for no reason. They are seen as a challenge, not a warning, to other anorexics. While Toscani and Nolita had good intentions, they did not serve their purpose, as proven through the anonymous testimony of one recovering anorexic. It can be argued by some that surely Isabelle Caro, an anorexic herself, knew what she was doing, but it should be duly noted that if recovery could be found through the means in which she attempted to seek it, then she might not have died three years later, not yet thirty years old, putting an end to her fifteen-year battle against anorexia as depictions of her body consumed the reputation of her soul, photos that later were to be used on sites promoting a sickness that she died vainly attempting to conquer (Ferreday).

It is important as well that those who attempt to raise awareness of anorexia through pictures of emaciated victims be aware that these photos are being taken and published on sites that actually use the photos as something they call ‘thinspiration’, namely, Pro-Ana sites. Pro-Ana sites are websites founded by people who wish to consider anorexia a religion, not a disease, and spur others to follow them in their footsteps (The Pro Ana Tips). Regulars on such sites claim to be a support group for others suffering from the disease, but rather than to bring the victims to convalescence, they encourage each other to become skinnier, even though cyber-bullying, which they prefer to call ‘meanspiration.’  The most crucial component of these sites, however, is the pictures. “Members must post photographs of themselves, accompanied by their body statistics as well as keep members updated on their weight loss progress,” The Pro Ana Tips site insists, “Plus, download and put up pictures of people who inspire you all over your walls as a constant reminder of your goal” (The Pro Ana Tips). Pictures are a must on these sites, and there are many Pro-Ana sites that one is declined access to without. The reason for the strategists’ decision to make these rules is because they believe that photos of incredibly slim people will ignite jealousy in the lowly self-esteemed, impressionable victims of anorexia that wind up on such sites, causing them to attempt to out-starve the people in the photos. It is now clearer than ever how photographs of anorexics are too much of a risk to be worth their publication, regardless of the cause. Others who embrace anorexia may argue that it should be respected as a religion, not condemned and that it is fine to promote religion, therefore making graphic depictions acceptable. Anorexics fast, but so do Christians, and shouldn’t photographs of protruding ribs get to serve as their cross? For two key reasons, it should not. Foremostly, anorexia is physically and mentally harmful, so it is not so much a religion as a cult. Moreover, Pro-Ana ‘coaches’ are hardly ever personally embracing the so-called religion. They have actually been exposed many times to be pedophiles, searching for gullible, self-conscious teens where they know they will find them—on Pro-Ana sites, a certain source for underaged nudes (The Pro Ana Tips). What should also be noted about these sites is that they quite literally thrive off of images of anorexics and/or incredibly thin bodies. In order to prevent these sites from thriving, it is implicit that such images be banned from publication everywhere. Unfortunately, photos that Pro-Ana site administrators are looking for are all to easy to find due to the vast world of praised and photographed anorexic celebrities.

It is no secret that anorexia has befallen many a celebrity over the years, the thought process behind the stardom usually being that becoming a skinnier person will make them more becoming to the public. For actresses, models, and even social media influencers, physical becomingness is oftentimes one of their most valued characteristics in the eyes of the public. Peer-pressure on these actresses is also proven to have oftentimes begun in their childhood, as “Many people with anorexia come from families in which parents are overprotective and have unrealistically high expectations of their children” (Pascual).  From Demi Moore to Victoria Beckham, many models have become skinnier in an attempt to please their family and the media, believing that one’s BMI is inversely proportional to their beauty (“Celebs Haunted by Anorexia Rumors”). While these celebrities usually attempt to defeat their condition, having them portrayed on television and in magazines is still promoting anorexia, no matter how incidentally. The actresses become unhealthy heroines to their viewers, a sort of role model or idol. For this reason, scenes such as the one in Stranger Things Season One of the rumored-to-be eating disordered actress Natalia Dyer in underwear are met with much controversy. People argued that the character which Dyer played, who was viewed in the Netflix series by other characters as very desirable, would make the predominantly teen audience self-conscious about their own weight. Perhaps, some may say, it should be permitted to have movies depicting anorexia, so long as the negative impact is stressed. This is untrue, as proven by Christina Ricci, when, during an interview, she testified that she “did get all [her] tips from a Tracey Gold Lifetime movie on anorexia” (“Celebs Haunted by Anorexia Rumors”). This example coincides with Caro’s naïve attempts to combat anorexia by publishing anti-anorexia content of herself visually because both Isabelle Caro and Tracey Gold had anorexia during the time (“Celebs Haunted by Anorexia Rumors”). Conclusively, not only does Ricci’s testimony prove that the pictorial publication of anorexic photos or videos is harmful to the general public, but it is also harmful to other celebrities. With this in mind, the movie and the fashion industry should see that the risks involved in spreading images of people of dangerously low BMIs are too large to run.

Evidently, no matter what light they are viewed in or how they are portrayed, praised or cursed, on magazine covers or in movies, pictures of an eating disordered persons have never been beneficial to those struggling with anorexia, instead proving an impingement on other’s efforts to conquer or resist unhealthy eating habits. This is something that has been proven by both children and adults, celebrities and anonymous bloggers, without fail. Therefore, due to the harmful effects of photos, videos, and illustrations promoting or openly displaying overly skinny people, this type of visual content should be banned from the movie industry, the fashion industry, social media platforms, and any other form of municipal publication.



Submitted: February 27, 2020

© Copyright 2023 Ava Rose Weisberg. All rights reserved.

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