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Column: The media is selling insecurity – but we don’t have to buy it

Eating disorders therapist Emma Murphy describes how images in the media affect her patients – and suggests a simple task for anyone considering a trip to the newsagent.

Emma Murphy

AS AN EATING disorders therapist, the majority of clients who come to me have poor body image.  And it is not surprising.  Insecurity sells.

It sells magazines, it sells beauty products, it sells cosmetic surgery and procedures from anti-ageing facials to Botox, it sells diets.  So the more magazines write and print about looks and bodies, the more advertising space they can sell to cosmetic companies and diet systems.

There is no point in being naive about this, these are multi-billion dollar industries worldwide.  So what do magazines do to support this type of advertising? Sell insecurity, so we will buy the latest cosmetic/diet/hair product.

Part of the buzz is around a key media issue, the use of Photoshop to digitally alter photos, as in these pictures. In 2009, Kelly Clarkson’s Photoshopped picture appeared on the cover of Self magazine. Just days after the cover was launched, Kelly appeared on a national US breakfast TV show, proving that she looked nothing like the photo.

Inside the magazine, Kelly’s interview appears. She says: “My happy weight changes, sometimes I eat more; sometimes I play more. I’ll be different sizes all the time. When people talk about my weight, I’m like, ‘You seem to have a problem with it; I don’t.’

When confronted, rather than apologising, the Self editor responded: “Yes, of course we do post-production corrections on our images. Photoshopping is an industry standard,” she stated. “Kelly Clarkson exudes confidence, and is a great role model for women of all sizes and stages of their life. She works out and is strong and healthy, and our picture shows her confidence and beauty. She literally glows from within. That is the feeling we’d all want to have. We love this cover and we love Kelly Clarkson.”

This example alone – and there are many more – show how the images women torment themselves by comparing themselves and finding themselves wanting, are not real. Models, celebrities and ads in magazines represent a false perception of women – women who are fat, blemish, wrinkle and cellulite free. Real women like this do not exist.

If you read magazines (and this goes for both women’s and men’s magazines), I invite you to set aside some time, either right now, later today, or sometime soon when you know you have about an hour to spare.  Go get several of your back issues and a sheet of paper and a pen.  Taking one magazine at a time, do the following research:

Magazine content
1. How many pages does the magazine have?
2. How many pages are devoted to articles on diet, ‘healthy’ eating, body shape or ‘beauty’?
(You can divide the number of pages (2) by the number of pages (1), and multiply by 100 to get the percentage of the magazine devoted to diets, body image and beauty).

Magazine advertising
3. How many advertisements are in the magazine in total?
4. How many ads are for beauty products? Diet or ‘healthy’ food products?
(For the stats, divide (4) by (3) and multiply by 100)

Positive messages
5. How many pages are devoted to the empowerment of women or men, or believing in yourself, or achieving goals in either your personal or work life that do NOT refer to either your looks, body image or diet?
(For the stats, divide (5) by (1) and multiply by 100)

How helpful do you think it is to allow yourself to be bombarded by these false images, telling you how you should look, when the models and celebrities themselves don’t even look like that? What might you be better spending your money on? And I don’t mean an expensive day/night cream, or Botox.

There are around 400,000 women and men in Ireland struggling with an eating disorder – anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Eating disorders result in 80 (reported) deaths a year. There are an estimated 1.2 million sufferers in the UK, and over 30 million in the USA. Men represent 20 per cent of sufferers, and the age range is from as low as 9 years, to beyond 60. These figures are reported, diagnosed numbers only.

I would never definitively state that the media can directly cause eating disorders, but I can say that they contribute significantly to low self-esteem, poor body image, body image dysmorphia and low self-worth. I know, because I see it every day in my clients.
Magazines cost you money, emotional energy, self-esteem. Don’t buy into it any more.  Say NO to being sold insecurity.

Emma Murphy is an eating disorders therapist with a private practice at Sandyford Wellness Centre, Dublin 18. Emma has developed an online program for adult women and men struggling with food and/or body image.

Visit the website at turninginstitute.com and follow her blog at eatingdisorderecovery.com. Part of this post was originally published in a blog on August 13 2011.

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