Mass Media, Eating Disorders, and Research

December 28, 2010

 

In a blog post over on Skepchick titled, “Eating Disorders, the Media, and Skepticism,” Rebecca Watson expressed some concern over some short columns that I’d written about media images and their effect on viewers (especially young women). 

 

Having been a journalist most of my life, and having written a 2003 book on media criticism ( Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us ), I have plenty of bad things to say about the media and pop culture. However, as a skeptic I must apply my skepticism to all claims for which there remains ambiguous evidence—including the idea that images of thin women are causing eating disorders in women. 

 

Watson (Rebby, as I affectionately call her) read a piece I’d written for Discovery News on the alleged influence of the new film Black Swan on women, and was intrigued by some of the sources I cited that summarized the status of the evidence for the link between mass media and eating disorders. 

 

“For example, R.A. Botta, writing in his [sic] 1999 study, “Television Images and Adolescent Girls’ Body Image Disturbance” in the Journal of Communication , noted that, “Concrete evidence is still necessary…to show that this existence of thin images and ideals has an effect on viewers….At this point, the relationship between television exposure and body image disturbance remains in question.” This view is supported by other researchers including Heidi Posavac, who wrote in her 1998 Sex Roles journal study, “Exposure to Media Images of Female Attractiveness and Concern with Body Weight Among Young Women” that “experimental investigations have not found a link between exposure to the media ideal and increased concern with weight.”

 

Rebecca dutifully read the studies, and concluded that “ All the quotes Radford gave were completely out of context, and I’m tempted to quote the entire paper because every word of it disagrees with Radford’s assertion that media images have no relationship to body image.”

 

She says much more, and I invite readers to read her comments in full at www.skepchick.org . Being accused of intentionally misquoting a researcher (or taking his or her comments out of context) is a serious accusation to level against a writer, and I gamely wrote the following response to her post to clarify the issue:

 

 

I’m pleased that there’s some discussion on this topic, though I’ve moved on to other subjects and can’t address the comments in full. These subjects are complex and nuanced, and cannot possibly be dealt with in a forum like this. Nonetheless, I’ll be happy to offer some replies. 

 

This is of course not the first time that Rebby has accused me of taking Botta’s words out of context. The first time she did it, she had not even read Botta’s article (she admitted she only read the abstract, and therefore could not have even known the context of the quotes!). For example, in a Dec. 14 Facebook post, Rebecca wrote, “You're taking out of context Botta's recommendation that the link she has found be explored further.” Actually, that’s not true, and Rebecca knows this. I invite readers to see the actual context of the quote, on page 23 of Botta’s (1994) article. The sentence just before the quote (“concrete evidence is still necessary, however, to show that this existence of thin images and ideals has an effect on viewers”) does not even mention Botta nor any “link she has found,” but instead the work of researchers Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, and Athens (1992), which dealt with Miss America contestants. So Rebecca has a history of mistakenly suggesting that I have taken quotes out of context when in fact I have not. I’m sure it was a minor oversight!

 

Rebecca consulted several of the references I provided in my short columns and states that, “If you care to read it, you will experience the same realization I did: this paper comes to the exact opposite conclusion Radford claims.” This misunderstanding seems to lie at the heart of the matter, and I figured out what the problem is so I will address it at length. Rebecca is assuming that the quotes were selected as representing the conclusions of those particular studies from which they were cited. I made no such claim. 

 

Rebecca is finding contradictions where none exist. We are both correct and accurate in our quotes, but we are talking about two different things. I was addressing the larger question of whether there’s good overall evidence that media images cause or bring about eating disorders. On this, Botta agrees with me that (as of 1999), the answer is no. The same is true for the Posavac article that she cites; the claim that (as of 1998) “experimental studies have not shown that exposure to media images increases women’s weight concerns” is completely accurate, not taken out of context, and (like the Botta piece) is quoted merely as an accurate and concise summary of the literature up until that point from dozens of studies—not specifically reflecting either Botta or Posavac’s work. 

 

Do some studies (including by Botta and others) suggest that there’s a link? Of course. That’s not the question. There are published studies that offer support for everything from cold fusion to memory water to psychic powers. Other studies have found the opposite result. Anyone can cherry-pick studies to make their case; the question is, what does the totality of the evidence show? 

 

Why did I use those quotes from Botta and Posavac? The reason is simple: For understanding a phenomenon, the body of research is much more important and relevant than discussing the results of one or two studies. To tell if something is true or not, you must look at the big picture, the totality of research, because any individual studies you may pick may be flawed in any number of ways (or even accurate but the result of statistical fluke). Thus the Botta and Posavac quotes I provided are actually more important and relevant to understanding the effects than the details of any given study, such as those Rebecca provided. 

 

What Rebecca sees as “pulling words out of context” is nothing of the sort. The researchers were correctly quoted. The purpose of the quotes I provided was to give readers a sense of the unproven nature of these claims across the body of research. The quotes I provided do not claim that the studies cited themselves came to any particular conclusion. Often one-fifth to one-third of journal articles include summaries and works from people other than the authors, surveys of prior research, and so on. There is nothing misleading about quoting that material; the quotes I provided were accurate, correct, and properly attributed. 

 

Rebecca sees some unspecified deviousness in the use of ellipses in writing. As a professional writer, I must often condense material and use ellipses in quoted material. When you’re writing a 1,000 word column on a subject, as I must often do, it is impossible and impractical to give every detail about studies. Writers must by necessity condense and summarize information to make it readable and understandable. No matter how Rebecca or anyone else tries to spin the context quotes, the fact is that the quotes are accurate and correct as applied to the larger questions. Renee Botta DID correctly write that “concrete evidence is still necessary... to show that this existence of thin images and ideals has an effect on viewers”; Heidi Posavac DID correctly note that “experimental studies have not shown that exposure to media images increases women’s weight concerns.”

 

Rebecca seems to think that I cited those Botta and Posavac studies as claiming that the researchers had found no link between media images and eating disorders. I did not write that, and if I gave that impression then it was my mistake. Did Botta find evidence in the study I quoted of some link between eating disorders and the media? Yes, and in fact I stated that quite clearly in the Facebook discussion. The point of the quote was to demonstrate that, as Botta acknowledges, as of 1999—after nearly twenty years of research—“the impact of media images on adolescent’ body image...has remained inadequately tested.”

 

Rebecca says she’s “forced to continue to side with what appears to be the consensus opinion: the media’s portrayal of the thin ideal most likely negatively impacts the body image of those who process those images poorly.” That’s an eminently testable (though heavily qualified) claim: what does “most likely” mean? What does “impact” mean? Any effect, or a causative effect? Is there a proven causative link or isn’t there? Is the claimed effect only limited to “those who process those images poorly”?

 

The burden of proof lies with the claimant, and thus those who claim that media images are causing (or contributing to) eating disorders have the burden of proof. After thirty years of research, the burden of proof has yet to be met. My larger point, that the mass media’s role in eating disorders remains speculative and unproven, remains quite true, and in fact has recently gotten even more support. See, for example the recent article “Everyone Knows that Mass Media Are/Are Not [pick one] a Cause of Eating Disorders: A Critical Review of Evidence for a Causal Link Between Media, Negative Body Image, and Disordered Eating in Females” by Michael P. Levine and Sarah K. Murnen in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 28, No. 1), 2009, pp. 9-42. The article reviews the research about the link between mass media as a causal risk factor for negative body image and disordered eating in females. It concludes that “currently, engagement with mass media is probably best considered a variable risk factor that might well be later shown to be a causal risk factor.” That is, despite over 30 years of research, the link between mass media and eating disorders is not strong enough to be considered a causal risk. Apparently these researchers did not find the “consensus opinion” that Rebecca refers to. 

 

At best, it might possibly be one of many factors that might have an influence . It seems that good evidence of a connection remains elusive, and the research done to date has been inadequate: “Stronger methodology, in connection with clearly articulated theories and well-developed, practical interventions is critically important for clarifying whether mass media are in fact a causal risk for the spectrum of disordered eating.” 

 

Re-read that sentence (the last line in the article), and you’ll find they are saying the same thing that Botta and Posavac said in their summaries of the literature years ago: the link remains unproven. Maybe one day we’ll find good evidence, but that day has not come. Until then, skeptics such as myself are well advised to adopt the skeptical dictum: “Prove it!”

 

Anyone interested in reading more about this can see my article “Media and Mental Health Myths: Deconstructing Barbie and Bridget Jones,” in The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practices , (Vol. 5, No. 1), 2007. 

 

 

Just to summarize, there is indeed evidence both for and against the claim that the mass media play a role in causing eating disorders. Like everything in science, some studies show an effect but others don’t. Neither I nor anyone else would claim that it is impossible that mass media might somehow cause (or bring about) eating disorders. The real question is this: After decades of research and hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, has science found a strong link between images of thin women in the media and the onset of eating disorders? The answer has remained the same for thirty years: possibly, but we don’t have good evidence. 

 

 

Comments:

#1 badrescher (Guest) on Tuesday December 28, 2010 at 3:21pm

“Did Botta find evidence in the study I quoted of some link between eating disorders and the media? Yes, and in fact I stated that quite clearly in the Facebook discussion.”

Actually, she didn’t, Ben. I’m working on a post on the topic myself. I’m not sure that I need to now, but perhaps I will finish it anyway.

The Botta study you quoted doesn’t measure eating disorders. The study is about body image. Yes, body image is directly linked to disordered eating, but the causal nature and, if there is one, the direction of cause is not established at all.

A direct link of media to eating disorders is certainly not established and the evidence suggests that such a link is unlikely. The complexity of this topic is such that answers to one specific question cannot possibly be used to support another, different specific question.

#2 Ben Radford on Tuesday December 28, 2010 at 3:28pm

Yes, you are quite correct. In my rush to respond I fell into the familiar trap of lumping together eating disorders, body image, thin ideals, and the like. When I’m writing for a knowledgeable audience I’m much more specific, but you’re correct. Thanks!

#3 Charlotte Bevan (Guest) on Friday December 31, 2010 at 12:05am

I read this with interest as I am not a believer in “causes” for eating disorders.  In our experience, our daughter’s anorexia was a biological brain disorder that had various contributing “triggers” but was not “caused” by any one particular thing.  It manifested itself more as an OCD focusing around numbers.

Body dismorphia is a seperate condition and is, quite often, a co-morbid condition alongside the eating disorder.

That is not to say that I agree with the constant repetition of perfectionism in the media.  I think it is very debilitating for all of us.  However, I think it is simplistic to say that media images could cause a serious mental illness.

For more up-to-date evidence-based research and treatment, I would urge Rebecca Watson to visit

#4 Charlotte Bevan (Guest) on Friday December 31, 2010 at 12:07am

For more up-to-date evidence based research I would urge Rebecca Watson to visit the Feast-ed website or the Around the Dinner Table forum.

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