One Mind at a Time: Talking Back to the Media

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Six-pack abs. Trimmer thighs. Better butts. Lose 40 pounds overnight. Even though I do not subscribe or read magazines with these messages on the cover, it’s difficult to escape a culture that glorifies thinness and the “perfect body.” Whether on the cover of a magazine, in advertisements, or in television and movies, these images are everywhere. As I began my recovery from anorexia nervosa, I wanted to change all this. I was convinced that if I tried hard enough, I could get women and men across America to embrace their natural beauty, inside and out—no longer would a woman judge herself on the size of her clothes or a man on the size of his muscles. Part of my recovery has been accepting that I cannot do everything. Another part has been accepting that I can do something.

Magazine Ads

Many times, I simply point out to people the biases I see in ads and magazine articles. Friends and family who have never suffered from an eating disorder are often unaware of the effects ads have self-perception—the constant pressure to be thin, the acceptance of starvation and dieting as a way of life, the twisted glorification of eating disorders in general.

By understanding the world from an eating-disordered person’s point of view, many people I know have had a change of attitude toward what they read and see. I was astonished at the number of people who didn’t know the dangers of dieting, that a person could exercise too much, or that the malnutrition brought on by dieting could trigger an eating disorder.

On a larger scale, I have expressed my opinions to a variety of media, from marketing executives to hometown journalists. The director of marketing typically places ads in a magazine in order to offset the cost of publishing. One way to express your distaste for ads is to cancel your subscription and include a complaint letter. While one letter might not make a difference, your small step could add up to an important contribution.

What to Say in a Letter

The best way to write an effective letter is to be specific and stick to the facts. An old-fashioned letter has a better chance of being opened than an e-mail. Enclose a copy of the ad in your letter. Be sure to say how the ad affected you and in what ways. If you can, include any available statistics and research that relate to the point you are trying to make. You might want to include information about a relevant study to back up the claims in your letter. For example, I found a study that showed when young, college-aged women reviewed popular women’s magazines, it significantly lowered their body image and self-esteem.

Also, a personal story can help the person reading the letter to better understand your point of view. Although it sounds cliché and like a sentence you might use with a therapist, using phrases such as, “When I see unhealthy/unrealistic models, it makes me feel…” can demonstrate the emotional impact of the advertisement in a direct way. If advertisements are turning people away, the publication will have to change the products they choose to feature and the manner in which they do so. Larger organizations (see box on page 13) can help you in writing letters and giving more authority to your words.

Newspaper Articles

Of course, protesting advertisements isn’t the only way to feel empowered and help people understand eating disorders. Almost every day I find articles in newspapers and magazines about eating disorders. Some of them are inspiring and helpful, but an equal number are biased or simply have wrong information. As a professional writer and former features editor of my college newspaper, I can tell you that publications pay very close attention to their readers’ opinions.

What many people outside journalism might not know is that suggestions from readers are a good source of potential articles. Write a letter to the managing editor about new, innovative forms of treatment, dispel common myths about eating disorders, or highlight an organization in your area that is doing advocacy work.

The timing of letters can be important in this situation. If a candlelight vigil is going to be held, provide the publication with the time, date, and location of the event in advance. If you feel comfortable, offer to be interviewed. I also find troubling the difference between recent research on eating disorders and the continued stereotypes in most articles. The public is not going to learn that people of all races, ages, and sexes suffer from eating disorders unless someone tells them. The public will not stop blaming sufferers and their parents unless they know that eating disorders have a biological basis. And insurance companies might not begin to pay for proper, timely, and intensive eating disorder treatment until people begin to demand it.

I am currently drafting a letter to a journalist from a major metropolitan newspaper in my area who wrote a story on insurance companies raising premiums for people who don’t comply with “health requirements” and lose weight, among other things. I will provide research stating that the effects of yo-yo dieting are far more harmful than finding your own natural weight. I will tell the author that people with a BMI that places them in the overweight category have fewer health problems than in any other category. Lastly, I will inform the author of my ongoing fight to get insurance coverage for residential treatment of my eating disorders.

Maybe I’ll change some minds, maybe not. At least I’ll know I tried.

By Carrie Arnold, MPH
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today 
Summer 2007 Volume 5, Number 3
©2007 Gürze Books

About the Author

Carrie Arnold, MPH, is the author of Next to Nothing: A Firsthand Account of One Teenagers Experience with An Eating Disorder and the memoir Running on Empty. Visit her website at ed-bites.blogspot.com.

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