The media (loosely defined here as mass market films, television, popular magazines and music) is an oft-beaten scapegoat, taking the blame for everything from violent children to casual sex. It has also been accused in recent decades of causing negative body-image perceptions (specifically in young women) by promoting unrealistically thin bodies. Young men, it has been reported, read only 10 percent of the articles and advertisements about dieting as young women (Andersen 2002: 189). One scholar notes that a full quarter of all of the female models in some fashion magazines fulfill the clinical description of anorexia nervosa, while few "overweight" individuals appear in a culture in which approximate a quarter of the population is overweight (Stice 2002: 104). Viewers and readers, in this argument, believe that they must have this "ideal" body, become depressed, start dieting, or develop an eating disorder. Besides representing a slender, fit body ideal that may encourage dieting, the media also reflects and perpetuates our dieting obsession, normalizing and thereby promoting the practice. The media is thus seen as presenting impossible body types for emulation and perpetuating a dieting culture to achieve such ends.
The media has often been noted as the cause of disordered eating and body-image issues because it promotes thinness as our culture's idea of beauty. Research has shown that interest in weight loss increases after exposure to television across the globe. Adolescent girls in Fiji were studied, and they were interested in dieting to look like television characters from Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) and Xena, Warrior Princess (1995-2001) (Becker et al. 2002: 509). The influence of Western mass media was further shown in a study of women in Ukraine. For these women, exposure to Western media was correlated with internalization of the thin ideal, and those women were also more likely to diet (Bilukha and Utermohlen 2001: 120).
Aside from the ubiquity of magazines more or less devoted to helping readers shape their bodies, there has been an obvious increase in the number of stories relating to dieting in other magazines as well. While the presence of stories about fad diets can be expected in news magazines, the fact that they are cover stories reflects the nation's growing obsession. For example Time magazine's November 1, 1999 cover featured the story "Low-Carb Diets." Is this what it takes to lure readers? Or is it simply an acknowledgment of dieting's growing relevance? Magazines also show that dieting has now expanded its horizons. Teen magazines regularly include diet and fitness tips for their young readers although very self-consciously, often with a disclaimer about the seriousness of eating disorders. Seventeen magazine's website even includes a BMI calculator along with sample menus to gain or lose weight. In addition, Parade magazine included an article titled "Help Your Pet Shed
Pounds." Just like human diets, the magazine suggests reducing caloric intake and increasing exercise for obese pets (Wilson and Kilcommons 2006).
Dieting has become such a regular part of modern life that media producers can allow their characters to remain "average" while still dieting. In "The Real Me" (Episode 50 of the wildly popular television series Sex and the City), Samantha Jones (played by Kim Catrall) went on a hot water and lemon diet to lose weight. All of this to take a few good photos—it was a moment to which the primarily female audience could relate. In the film Mean Girls (2004), new girl Cady Heron (played by Lindsay Lohan) seeks revenge on the popular Regina George (Rachel McAdams) by telling her that protein bars would help her lose weight, when in fact they do the opposite. The underlying truth is this: We are appalled that anyone would be mean enough to trick another girl into getting fat, yet fat jokes are hilarious. The ubiquity of dieting is also a constant theme in the animated sitcom The Simpsons (1989-): After eating too much junk food, Bart gains weight, has a heart attack, and is forced to go on a diet that he can't keep; Lisa is teased for having a "big butt" so she reads "Thin by Third Grade" and goes to the mall where a store employee makes a pre-teen mannequin even thinner; Homer orders a "Lose Weight in Your Sleep" audio cassette.
Perhaps because of widespread accusations of media culpability, the media has become increasing self-aware (to the point of shamelessness) of its role in promoting dieting. For example, some television programs have straddled the line between blatantly promoting thin body types and the exhibition of dieting as a normal societal practice. For example, NBC's reality show The Biggest Loser (2004-), which also has U.K. and Australia editions, featured fitness trainers and health experts who helped contestants competitively lose a large amount of weight. One segment included a food temptation; contestants would win a prize if they chose to eat it and would gain nothing, including extra pounds, if they didn't. Such a challenge promotes the importance of self-control but also ironically underlines the unimportance of it all: Eating a cupcake doesn't really make any difference. VHi had a similar show called Celebrity Fit Club (2002, 2005) where B-list celebrities tried to lose weight with the help of a U.S. Marine drill coach and were weighed publicly at the end of every show. Besides using the celebrity as a hook, viewers gain the satisfaction of knowing that dieting is the great equalizer: Famous people have to work just as hard as anyone else to lose weight. The subtle promotion of diets, dieting tips, or the "need" to go on a diet can also be seen in the casual conversation or monologues of other reality programs, talk shows, and, ironically enough, cooking shows.
Research has also shown that the amount of time one watches music videos is a fairly good predictor of the desire to be thin (Tiggemann and Pickering 1996: 199). The role of music, unlike music videos, in body-shaping behaviors is seldom addressed, largely because of its lack of visual images of bodies. Grammy Award winning hiphop artist Kanye West managed to use both visual and textual cues in his song, "The New Workout Plan" (2004). The lyrics include exercise advice to do Pilates and food tips, like eating salad instead of dessert. Meanwhile, the satirical but catchy music video featured fit women at the gym, testimonials with before and after pictures, and an image of Kanye scolding one girl who wanted to eat a doughnut. The song and its video, which included the disclaimer "Call your plastic surgeon before beginning this workout," rapidly became a hit. Meanwhile, the satirist Weird Al Yankovic more bluntly sings about a specific fad diet in his song "Grapefruit Diet" (1999), using his lyrics to poke fun at our diet-crazed society. More recently, female pop artist P!nk's song and video "Stupid Girls" (2006) mock super-skinny Hollywood celebrities such as Lindsey Lohan and Nicole Richie while creating a powerful critique of the dieting and plastic surgery industries.
Aside from being commentary, the music industry has also squeezed its way into the multibillion-dollar dieting industry. In i997, new-age musician Steven Halpern released a CD with the not-so-subtle title "Achieving Your Ideal Weight." His website advertises to "play this program during mealtimes or whenever hungry to help you attain and maintain your desired weight." Cduniverse. com explains that the album was "designed with meal times in mind" and "under a layer of relaxing music . . . are subliminal affirmations like, 'You chew your food slowly. You love and accept your body fully.' " This technique is far more direct than the other link between music and dieting: the suggestion that music, any music, might be helpful when dieting. The Women's Centre for Health Matters' "Exercises for Very Large Women" suggests using music to lose weight, whether it is playing an instrument or listening to music while exercising (Anon. "Exercises for Very Large Women": 3).
Some studies support the idea that media affects people's dieting behavior, while others refute it. Still others believe that while media influence is a factor, it is by no means the only one involved (Field et al. 2001: 54). Regardless, our popular perception of media influence on body-shaping has affected the media industry's manipulation of the subject, from promotion to awareness and even criticism. It is clear that our obsession with dieting has entered all aspects of popular media magazines, films, television, and music.
See also Celebrities; Children; Fashion; Internet; Men; Pets
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