Ethical Issues of Todays Models Being too Thin Essay

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Introduction & Background

In recent history, the idea and overall concept of feminine beauty has been slowly sinking toward a far less healthy, overly thin model. When humans first evolved over 25,000 years ago, women with large, ample breasts and hips were seen by society as very sexually appealing symbols of fertility.

Fertile women were considered to be the ideal for any man. Thin women were not considered beautiful because they did not appear healthy enough to raise and provide nourishment for their family. Slim women were also often times considered poor because in the eyes of society, they could not afford enough food to keep their body full and healthy.

During the Renaissance, a persons weight was their societal status. Overweight women were considered beautiful. The belief was that the wealthier the person, the more food they could afford, and in turn become larger in size.

These ideas stayed in the minds of women until the early 1900s, when thinner women began to get attention in the media. Marilyn Monroe started this trend. Although she wasnt overly thin, she was shapely but slender. Her beauty was awe-inspiring she was the first in a long chain of progressively more thin women.

According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, (2000) society experienced a brief flirtation with full-breasted, curvaceous female figures during 1950s, our collective taste returned to an ideal of extreme thinness and an androgynous, if not childlike, figure (Brumberg 2000). Twiggy, a London model of the 1960s, was one of the first models to introduce the bone thin look. Marilyn and Twiggy together unleashed a crowd of impressionable women.

Nowadays thinness is almost everywhere you look; pictures on magazine covers, advertisements, billboards, television shows, fashion shows. One is confronted by these images standing in the line at the grocery store, flipping through a magazine, or just glancing at the advertisements on television. It is quite evident by looking at the emaciated pictures of young women and surprisingly men too, what the media considers as the ideal figure. This perception society has created, plays a major part in our countries and the worlds obsession with thinness and extreme dieting. Nearly 50% of all women are on a diet at any given time (Bordo 2004)

Americas obsession with health and diets and the fashion industry and television exhibiting waif thin models as sexy and voluptuous, portrays a distorted notion and gives many young women the wrong idea about body image. In todays society eating problems, such as anorexia and bulimia, are becoming all too common. Yet, the question still remains, what are the causes and factors contributing to this destructive behavior, and what kind of impact is the media contributing to these problems? These are the ethical issues that will be explored in this essay.

The Media

The media is an important aspect of life in our culture. About 95% of people own a TV set and watch for an average of 3- 4 hours per day. By the end of the last century over 60% pf men and 50% of women read a newspaper each day and nearly half of all girls, from the age of 7 read a girls magazine each week (BMA 2000). In addition, people interact with a wide variety of other media such as music delivered by CDs or DVDs, and communications via personal computers.

Each form of medium has a different purpose and content. The media seek to inform us, persuade us, entertain us, and change us. The media also seeks to engage large groups of people so that advertisers can sell them products or services by making them desirable. Other institutions such as Governments also engage the public via the media to make ideas and values desirable. Institutions from politics to corporations can use the media to influence our behavior. We can trace our involvement with the media back to the drum messages of the Indians, the shouts of the town crier. All that has changed are the multitudinous ways in which information passes to us and the increasing sophistication of the media providers.

The argument about whether the media shape society or merely reflect current or previous trends is constantly under debate. Before the Second World War, it was believed that the media injects values and morals into society. However social research in the 1960s showed that the audience is not a passive receiver of moral values.

Society is constructed of many different subcultures, classified by factors such as race, social class, political outlook, adhesion to different value systems and lifestyles. These differing social groups select and filter information and reject messages that are not consistent with the values of that group. On the other hand, irrespective of social clusters, research has shown that it is those with low confidence and self esteem within each group who are most influenced by media communications.

The Medias Obsession with Size and Weight

Nowadays, it seems the media are obsessed with weight. Everywhere we look we can find prime examples. The Oprah Winfrey Show was talking about the issue of weight. Carnie Wilson was on and had lost 150 pounds as the result of gastric bypass surgery in 1999. Granted, her health was at jeopardy due to her weight, but this is a great example of how society is so driven by appearance. We have talk shows based on obese infants. Society just seems to eat this up. Viewers are never lacking for these shows. Ratings seem to skyrocket when these shows are aired (ANRED, 2007).

The newsstands are displaying magazines of which almost every issue has a thin, beautifully airbrushed swimsuit model on its cover. Your television is showing more and more unhealthily thin actresses. Bones are jutting out and implants are taking the place of real breasts. Most of these supermodels and actresses are so unnaturally thin that they risk infertility, osteoporosis and, ultimately, kidney damage.

This obsession with thinness seems to be a sort of domino effect. One actress looses weight to please the media; next all her co-stars are loosing weight to keep up. Actress Courtney Thorne-Smith (size 4) has said that if she had not been on the [now-defunct] TV show Ally McBeal, shed have been 5 pounds heavierbut couldnt risk it for fear shed have looked big next to her size 2 co-stars.

I would run eight miles, go to lunch and order my salad dressing on the side. I was always tired and hungry. says Courtney. Meanwhile, her famously thin co-star at the time, Calista Flockhart, preached the benefits of spinning (vigorous workouts on stationary bikes). At first it hurts your butt, but you become addicted to it like a maniac. says Calista, who, incidentally, is size 2, 56³, and 100lbs. (HILARY 2007)

Does anyone ever think about how the overload of these images in the media affects the average woman? Well, for most women it doesnt exactly have a positive effect. In fact, the idea of the medias (and consequently, everybody elses) ideal woman often makes normal woman self-conscious ” even if they have nothing to be self-conscious about.

There is a definite impact these Hollywood role models have on younger viewers. For most teenagers, the ideal person they want to be is a famous model or actress and the emphasis is very much on external appearance. Perhaps this is part of the reason that so many teenagers today are unhappy with their appearance and are often on a diet.

What most women and men dont realize is that every image of a model or actress in a fashion or beauty magazine (or catalog) has been touched-up using the latest computer technology to remove bulges, pimples, stretch marks, etc. Elizabeth Hurley even admitted that her breasts were electronically enlarged for the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Christy Turlington explains to Elle magazine¦ Advertising is so manipulative, she says. Theres not one picture in magazines today thats not airbrushed.¦ Its funny, Turlington continues. When women see pictures of models in fashion magazines and say, I can never look like that, what they dont realize is that no one can look that good without the help of a computer. (HILARY 2007)

Beyond that, there are about 100-300 professional photographs taken for each published image you see. They are taken from the absolute best angle in perfect lighting with the clothes pinned just so. And as if that wasnt enough, the models hair and makeup is always professionally done and is constantly touched up by a makeup artist and hair stylist standing by to make sure nothing looks less-than-perfect.

Damaging Paradox

So now we accuse the media, by glorifying the culture of thinness, of causing an epidemic of eating distress, especially among young women. The media denies responsibility for doing anything about it. Kelly Brownell, a US expert in eating disorders, argues that the media contribute to a toxic environment in which eating disorders may be more likely to occur. This is because of the Damaging Paradox of modern society in which the media promotes, in a compelling manner, a low- weight sculptured ideal body (Brownell 2004).

At the same time the environment provides an increasing array of foods high in fat and calories, with compelling pressures to consume these products. As a result we are getting heavier, and the gap between the ideal and normal body weight is giving rise to anxiety. We seek to reduce this anxiety by reducing our body weight, the preferred method being to go on a diet, since we believe that weight IS under our control and, in addition we believe that once weight is lost it should not be regained. But dieting causes rebound binge eating and attempts to deal with this, by going on further diets, will lead many people into a disturbed relationships with food (Brownell 2004)

There are other dangers arising from this cultural paradox. The models and actors who promote consumption of these calorie- laden foods are usually slim and attractive (as explained above), which would not be possible in a real world if they actually ate these foods. This will add to the cultural confusion, which is said to nurture the onset of eating distress. To what extent are these accusations true?

To try to answer this we need to study eating disorders in a little more detail.

Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa, despite popular belief, is not a recent disease. In 1873 concurrently in France and England the two of the first cases of this disorder were recorded (Brumberg 2000). Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, the two officially recognized eating disorders, have become major focuses of attention among the public due to rapid increases in occurrences. Both of these diseases are associated with one overriding desire: all encompassing drive to be thin. (Chernin 1986).


Eating disorders are characterized by severe distortions in an individuals perception of their body shape, preoccupation with their weight and severe disturbances in eating behavior. Generally, these behaviors fall into two categories: Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa:

These disorders affect men, women, and children of all races. Eating-disordered individuals have many different body weights. Terms like anorexia, bulimia and compulsive over eating refer to a behavior, not a body shape or type.

Statistics (ANRED, 2007)

Determining accurate statistics is difficult because physicians are not required to report eating disorders to a health agency, and also because people with these problems tend to be secretive, denying that they even have a disorder. So we have no way of knowing exactly how many people in North America are affected. We can study small groups of people, determine how many of them are eating disordered, and then extrapolate to the general population. The numbers are usually given as percentages, and they are as close as we can get to an accurate estimate of the total number of people affected by eating disorders.

Signs & Symptoms (ANAD, 2007)


The causes of these disorders are numerous. Some are biological (according to recent research (Archives of General Psychiatry 2006; 63:305-312) Genetic factors account for more than half (56 percent) of the risk of developing anorexia nervosa (ANRAD, 2007) and psychological, but for the purpose of this paper we are going to concentrate on socio-cultural factors.

In Westernized countries characterized by competitive striving for success, and in pockets of affluence in developing countries, women often experience unrealistic cultural demands for thinness. They respond by linking self-esteem to weight.

Cultural expectations can be cruel and unrelenting. In order for a woman to consider herself happy, she has to be in a good relationship, be happy with her kids, her friends have to like her, her job has to be going well, her house has to look really good ” and she has to be thin. (Domar, 2003)

An improvement of the economic conditions of woman, family characteristics, and visual exposure to ideal image of the female body in the media would influence eating disorders (Bordo 2004).

Also, eating disorders are culturally specific. More than 90% of the cases of severe eating disorders are found in young, white female of middle to upper socioeconomic status who are living in a competitive environment. (Bordo 2004). Anorexia is also more likely to occur in professions where there is a culture of slenderness like dancing, athletics, modeling, etc. The following was collected from Home Journal, Playboy magazine, and Miss America participants by Garner, Garfinkle, Schwartz, and Thompson. According to this data, 69% of Playboy centerfolds and 60% of Miss America participants from 1959 to1978 had weights 15% or below the average weights for their age and height (Brumberg 1998).

An ideal body image also differs among different ethnic groups. The research of Madeline Altabe, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, indicates that Caucasian and Hispanic-Americans showed more weight-related body image disturbance than African-Americans and Asian-Americans. African-Americans had the most positive general body image. Ethnic groups were similar in their ideal body image traits (Bordo 2004). There are also common family characteristics among eating disorder patients. Many of the patients are from middle and upper class backgrounds whose parents are high achievers.

The typical anorexic family seems to be hard-driven and concerned about external appearances including physical ones. To accomplish these goals, family members often deny negative feelings and tend to attribute their problems to other people. In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body statistically proven data suggests that among eating disorder patients there are significant differences of cohesion and expressiveness. Cohesion and expressiveness are the degree of unity among family members. Comparing with normally functioning families, those with eating disorder patients scored lower on cohesiveness and expressiveness. (Bordo 2004))

Finally, and possibly most importantly, visual media appears to have an effect on the frequency of eating disorders. This is explored in the Chapter below.

Key Ethical Issues (Effect of the Media)

There is no doubt that the ideal body size, as reflected in the style icons promoted in the media, is getting thinner. This ideal body size epitomized by Kate Moss, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Victoria Beckham or Ally McBeal is unrealistically thin; their BMI is on the borders of what a clinician would regard as anorexic. Due to the proliferation of food in our culture, people are getting bigger, fatter, and maturing younger and younger as the years pass by. The gap between actual body sizes and the cultural ideal is getting wider, and giving rise to anxiety among almost all women, although it is the most vulnerable who are most affected by this (Observer 2003)

There is a lot of dieting going on as a result, because dieting is viewed as the solution to the problem of excess weight, even if the excess is just all in the mind. There is evidence from dieting studies that twice as many people diet as need to; in other words of all people who diet, half are not even overweight. However dieting doesnt inevitably lead to anorexia. Anorexia is not a slimming disease.

To push the point home, there is no evidence of an increase in anorexia. There are more reported cases coming to the attention of services, but perhaps this is because we now know so much more about the illness. It is hard therefore to justify an accusation that exposure to supermodels will cause our teenage girls to develop anorexia.

Dieting behaviors are however a risk factor for the other eating disorders, compulsive eating and its variant, bulimia nervosa, an illness in which the sufferer diets, experiences rebound binge eating due to food deprivation and then purges to rid themselves of unwanted calories. Bulimia is an illness which may start out as a useful strategy to control weight gain but rapidly develops into an addictive illness, which engulfs the sufferer and becomes a way of coping with emotional difficulties.

Studies show that bulimia nervosa is on the increase, although again these figures may just reflect a growing awareness of the disorder or an increased provision of services. However, women feel pressure from many sides to control their weight, from the media but also from their peers, from boyfriends, from parents and from the fashion shops that carry clothes in ranges and sizes that suit only the smallest among them.

There is no doubt that the media provides significant content on body related issues to young women, over 50% of whom, (between the ages of 11 15 years) read fashion and beauty related magazines (BMA 2000). The exposure to ideal images coincides with a period in their lives where self regard and self efficacy is in decline, where body image is at its most fragile due to physical changes of puberty and where the tendency for social comparison is at its peak. Girls thus find themselves in a subculture of dieting, reflecting messages not only from the media but also from parents, peers, members of the opposite sex as well as the media.

Ethical Considerations in the Media

In recent years it has become politically correct for the media to make some effort to combat eating disorders. We have seen magazine articles and TV shows featuring the perils and heartbreak of anorexia and bulimia, but these efforts seem weak and ineffective when they are presented in the usual context.

For example, how can one believe that a fashion magazine is truly motivated to combat anorexia when their articles about that subject are surrounded by advertisements featuring anorexic-looking models? How can one believe that the talk show hostess is truly in favor of strong, healthy female bodies when she frequently prods her stick-like thighs and talks about how much she wants to lose weight from her already scrawny body?

Some institutions in Government, Psychology and the media industry itself (as discussed above) are also becoming concerned about the use of thin models to promote goods and service. There was a Government superwaif summit in the UK in 2000 to which moguls of the magazine industry were invited (BBC 2000). Similarly, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) has issued guidelines stating that it is desirable to ensure that advertising does not stimulate unhealthy attitudes to eating and that is must not imply that being underweight is desirable (Observer 2003).

Organizers of the Madrid Fashion Week in September 2006 even went as far as to ban ultra-thin models, the so-called size zeros from the show. The show, known as the Pasarela Cibeles, had decided not to allow women below a predetermined body mass index to parade down the catwalk. Five of 68 models were rejected (CBS 2006)

Good in theory, but as we have seen this has not had significant impact on the sizes of models in magazines, nor of the size of girls in music bands. Celebrities continue to attract attention for their weight loss rather than their accomplishments, and the greater the furor about their size the more attention they receive. The new celebrity anorexia may be creating more ripples in society than any former use of models in fashion shoots.

Studies Conducted on Media Effects on Body Image

There have been numerous studies conducted to try to ascertain whether the media does indeed have a direct affect on body image and eating behavior.

One such study was conducted by Heinberg & Thompson (1999). The overall purpose of the study done in the article was to examine the relationship between the portrayals of female body image in print advertisements found in popular womens beauty magazines and the perceived body image of college-aged females 18-22 years old.

One specific variable that Heinberg and Thompson tested was the internalization of societal pressures regarding prevailing standards of attractiveness (Heinberg & Thompson, 1999), which seems to have moderate or even meditate the medias effects on womens body satisfaction and eating problems.

Media messages that are present in media portrayals of eating disorders are obvious, which lead the researchers to try to find strategies to reverse those viewpoints. Social activism and social marketing were brought up as methods of fighting negative media messages. The researchers explained through the journal that, the media itself is one potential vehicle for communicating productive, accurate, and deglamorized messages about eating and body image disorders (Heinberg & Thompson, 1999).

In May 1999, research was published by Anne Becker of the Harvard Medical School that demonstrated the medias unhealthy affect on womens self-esteem and body awareness. In 1995, before television came to their island, the people of Fiji thought the ideal body was round, plump, and soft. Then, after 38 months of Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, and similar western shows, Fijian teenage girls showed serious signs of eating disorders (Becker, 1999).

In another study, females who regularly watch TV three or more nights per week are fifty percent more likely than non-watchers to feel too big or too fat. About two-thirds of the TV-watching female teens dieted in the month preceding the survey. Fifteen percent admitted vomiting to control their weight.

Some of these studies point to a measurable, short-term association between reduced self- esteem, heightened anxiety or anger and depression, and exposure to culturally ideal body shapes, less among men and more among women. However there is no way to know how or if this anxiety persists over time or translates into future dieting or eating disorders.

It is hard to evaluate the relationship between the media and eating disorder without considering the multi faceted impact of media messages on body size, on food consumption, on the desirability of certain foods and their consequent consumption, and other matters relating to personal identity and status.

The media can have many influences in relation to food and eating including:

1          It confers hidden meanings on food nostalgia, sexiness, being a good housewife and mother, rewarding oneself, having uninhibited fun etc, and creates unnatural drives for food

2          The media can persuade us that wrong eating habits are right and natural. I cite the case of a MacDonalds advertisement previously in which a young boy persuades both his parents to take him for a burger and chips rather than a healthy outing at the zoo.

3          The media can create anxieties about being deprived if we dont have what everyone else is having

4          The media presents us with an idealized shape which is invested with attributes of being attractive, desirable, successful and loveable but which is unattainable without resorting to sinister or dangerous eating habits.

5          The media perpetuates the feeling in people who do not have the ideal shape that their life would be fine if they were slim.

Taking all of the above Chapters into consideration we now need draw a conclusion of whether the extreme thinness of todays models has ethical consequences on society, in particular to the portrayal of body image as perceived by young females, which may in turn lead to them developing eating disorders.


It is hard to separate the influence of the media in the development of eating disorders. Various studies point to the correlation between low self-esteem in young girls and high scores on eating distress measures as they grow. Self-esteem is a dynamic construct, like body image, which is influenced by a whole variety of factors such as parenting, childhood experiences, core personality and body image especially in girls. It follows thus by logical reduction that influences on body image will affect self esteem and promote the risk of developing an eating disorder as a person turns to the control of their body in order to feel acceptable.

In this respect the media may contribute to low self-esteem by promoting slenderness as the pathway to gaining love, acceptance and respect while at the same time reflecting a trend in society to demonize fat. When women are asked what they fear most in life, most will cite the possibility of gaining weight. When women are asked what they least like about themselves most will describe a part of their body (usually stomach, thighs, legs) rather than no physical attributes like laziness or low confidence. Men conversely are more likely to mention non-physical attributes. When women are asked what men find attractive in them, most mention physical appearance. Women thus feel judged by their looks rather than their other resources.

Esteem isnt the only risk factor for an eating disorder. Traumatic childhood experiences, timing of puberty, family functioning, emotional resilience, exposure to unhealthy eating patterns in other people, family concerns about weight, fear of growing up, sexuality problems, bullying, loss, history of dieting, all may have an influence on a persons relationship with food (BMA 2000). So we can conclude that the media may both steer and reflect our cultural obsession with how we look and what we put into our mouths.

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