When I was six years-old, I heard of eating disorders for the first time. It wasn’t during a serious discussion, instead it was part of a headline on a magazine cover. Between covering celebrities who have them to worldwide struggles with eating disorders, eating disorders seem to be a subject that is often discussed in the news. But eating disorders, just like any issue that involves mental health, aren’t gossip fodder. Reporting on this topic can have real-life implications for many.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been affected by eating disorders in any form, whether they themselves have or had one or someone that they care about has or had one. I myself have struggled with binge eating while working through trauma and watched a family member who I care a lot about lose an unhealthy amount of weight before he started treatment.
Between almost giving instructions on disordered eating habits, pushing force stereotypes about eating disorders, and using sensationalist images, the media can do more harm than good, even when they do not have bad intentions. Here are four things that the media can do a better job at when reporting on eating disorders and weight in general.
1) Stop giving instructions
During my training for an internship at The Mighty, we were instructed when editing articles that revolve around eating disorders to leave out “instructions” and also numbers. By “instructions,” this could refer to how many calories someone ate in a day while struggling with an eating disorder like anorexia. If someone is at a vulnerable place with an eating disorder and are looking at stories on the internet, this could backfire immensely, and the reader may find, unfortunately, inspiration in these unhealthy habits.
2) Recognize that eating disorders aren’t uniform
There is no “look” that comes with an eating disorder. While people with eating disorders may be thin, this is not the case for everyone. Perpetuating this idea may lead to people, like me, being in denial that they have an eating disorder because they don’t look like the average poster child for anorexia.
In fact, people with eating disorders may be what our society considers to be “healthy.” Shawn Johnson, a decorated Olympic gymnast, revealed that she was severely limiting her diet during the 2008 Summer Olympics to the point where she felt that her body was “shutting down.” Shawn said that she was not “diagnosed as anorexic,” although she did have “very unhealthy habits.” From the outside, Shawn may have seemed to be a healthy, fit gymnast, but the truth is she wasn’t. Shawn is just one example of many that shows we can’t “see” an eating disorder.
3) Be careful when using images
Images in articles about eating disorders could perpetuate the idea that people with eating disorders look a certain way and could serve as a toxic “thinspiration” for people with an eating disorder. Beat Eating Disorders, a non-profit organization in the United Kingdom, warns against that “sensationalist images that are potentially very dangerous” and that they “should be banned.” According to Beat, journalists may use these sensationalist photos because they think they would be shocking to the readers, “when in reality they are potentially harmful to people affected by eating disorders.”
Pictures don’t tell the full story. Anyone you run into may have an eating disorder, and you may never know.
4) Don’t shame people for their weight
Last but not least, the media really needs to stop shaming people for their weight. Demi Lovato, who has struggled with anorexia and bulimia in the past, has spoken about how pressure from the media to stay thin as well as bullying, contributed her to developing eating disorders. The media really needs to stop body-shaming people. Even if only one person cites the media as contributing to an eating disorder, it’s too many.
Hopefully, these four ways that the media can do a better job when reporting on eating disorders and people’s wait give some hindsight into why the media needs to change the way its coverage. Eating disorders are a serious topic that can be devastating, so it’s time the media takes approaching this topic more carefully.