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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

Adverts, self-concept, eating disorders (and, of course, Jean Kilbourne)

desk covered in adverts

An eating disorder is a mental illnesses that has nothing to do with choice. They have triggers, sometimes something as seemingly innocuous as going into energy deficit by dieting can be enough, or maybe the attrition of bullying or the emotional earthquake of a trauma.

maintaining factors of eating disorders

There are perpetuating factors as well, the things that help maintain the illness, that validate and seem to confirm it in our minds and our lives. One thing that is definitely damaging, especially when adults are in active recovery and trying so hard to deal with the changes this brings about, is the media, and I think, in particular advertising.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of one advert that has been airing in the UK over the last few weeks that had bloody unhelpful and unrealistic representation of women's bodies and triggered two of my clients in the same week.

Adverts and self-concept

Important and powerful work exploring, among other things, the damage that such advertising does to women's self-concept has been done by author Jean Kilbourne, best known for her documentary on women in the media 'Killing Us Softly'; Kilbourne has further examined in detail the messages in food and body-image related adverts, which create a "toxic cultural environment" that in turn harms our relationship with what and how we eat.

In a talk given by Kilbourne in 2015, presented at the Harvard TH Chan and Boston Children's Hospital (sponsored by the important STRIPED* programme), she revealed that research shows the average woman is exposed to 3000 adverts EVERY DAY, and will spend a total of two years watching TV adverts in her lifetime. At the centre of a huge number of these adverts is a template of idealised female beauty, which shows women as tall, light-skinned and thin; (thin and getting thinner!). The models used are often digitally altered to fit these increasingly unrealistic proportions.

It's inevitable that women and girls compare themselves to these images every day. That onslaught of 3000 images showing us what women 'should' look like, can wear away at the most confident and secure of us. After all, if advertising didn't work, (that is, make us spend more by influencing our thinking and self-perception), there wouldn't be a massive $579 billion spent on it per year globally (1) And we're bound to fail in our attempts to look like these women, because even they don't look like them in reality; these images are based on a flawlessness that doesn't exist. (2) .

This biscuit-cutter concept of beauty is so pervasive now that 50% of 3 to 6 year old girls are concerned about their weight, and girls as young as 5 are being treated for eating disorders. On Fiji, the arrival of TV (and so, adverts) led to a massive increase in weight concern and dieting among women and girls, who up to that point," hadn't been aware that there was something wrong with them".(3) A well known maxim within advertising is to create a problem in order to sell the solution, and women have always been a prime target of this cynical marketing approach.

While force-feeding us this artificial concept of beauty, (creating a disconnection between women, and to a growing extent, men, and their bodies), advertising also offers conflicting messages, when food is a comforter and a substitute for relationships; and these messages are mixed alongside adverts where women are shamed for having any sort of appetite for food, (such as an example Kilbourne has used showing a pair of cinnamon buns hanging off a model's slim legs.)

These images normalise disordered behaviours around eating and food, such as bingeing and shame. "The bulimic," Kilbourne asserts "is the ideal consumer" (4)

So what is the solution?

We need a complete transformation in the way think about food."the solution to the so-called obesity epidemic isn't to make girls hate themselves" (5). Instead of artificially trying to force everyone into dangerously limiting BMI parameters, the focus, I think, should be on helping people to focus our efforts more on being healthy and having the energy to enjoy life, so our bodies can get to the weight and shape they're genetically meant to be.

The sort of sweeping change needed can't happen child by child. Kilbourne calls for public Health practitioners to focus their efforts on an environmental level: including, among other measures, greater transparency in the use of Photoshop in the media in general, and adverts in particular, warning labels and taxes on diet products and media literacy education in our schools. (6)


*Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders


(2) Kilbourne, Dying to be thin and beautiful, (2017)

(3) Kilbourne,Advertising's Toxic effects on eating and body image,2015

(3) Ibid.

(4)Kilbourne,(2017) op. cit.

(5)Kilbourne(2015) op.cit.


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