Misrepresentation of Women and eating Disorders: Analytical Essay

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How the Misrepresentation of Women in the Media Began

While issues regarding body image have always been present in society, with the introduction of flappers in the 1920s, body standards in the United States underwent a dramatic change. The voluptuous body type of the Gibson Girl was replaced by the slender, boyish figure of the Flappers. The changing societal ideals allowed the “New Woman of the Progressive era [to obtain] more participation in the public ‘sphere,’” however, “[women] did not achieve liberation from cultural pressures to conform to what was considered desirable” ('New Woman: Who was the ‘New Woman?”). As the “ideal had become one without curves … fashionable women [strove] to eliminate them from their figures by compressing the busts and hips, in order to achieve the ‘morestreamlined’ look” ('New Woman: Who was the ‘New Woman?”). This sudden change from one extreme to another was detrimental to the physical and mental health of women in the United States. During this time, American citizens became focused on their physical appearance rather than aspects of their personality and character. In Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (1989), a book written by Warren I. Susman, he argues that the ideals of the early 1900s were very different from those from the Victorian Era; with more attention towards outward appearance, people were willing to take extreme steps in order to enhance themselves. This lead to an increase of eating disorders and unhealthy habits focused on losing weight. ('New Woman: Who was the ‘New Woman?”).

Society’s view on body image took another drastic turn in the 1960s when the bodies of models became even skinnier. Models such as Lesley Hornby (Twiggy) and Jean Shrimpton (Shrimp) became increasingly popular and set the beauty standard. These two women, along with many others, defined feminine beauty, and became the role models for other American women. People with perfectly healthy bodies started to undergo unnatural processes in order to look like these women that were being advertised constantly In other words, normal people were trying to achieve unrealistic standards that were being portrayed in the media. The obsession to be skinny didn’t stop in this era, in fact, models in the fashion industry have remained thing since the 1960s (Fowler). An article in the New York Times from 1996 talks about how eating disorders were affecting a large portion of American society. This article focuses on the shift from solely teenage girls being affected by eating disorders, but how eating disorders were also taking a toll on pre-adolescent girls, adolescent boys, and middle age women (Hochman). Chris Aisas, a spokesman from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Assorted Disorders stated that “an estimated seven million women and one million men nationally suffer from eating disorders” (Hochman). The increase of eating disorders in the United States was mirroring another aspect in American lives that had been developing over the past few decades: the prevalence of media ('Easier access to media by children increases risk for influence on numerous health issues”).

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A major change that citizens in the United States experienced over the course of the 1900s was their access to media. In the early 1900s, there were limited sources of media, however, as newer technologies were created, more ways of obtaining information were introduced. While there were many benefits to the increase of means of communication and sharing of knowledge, the accessibility of media created problems as well. As it became easier to access a wider variety of content, it also became easier to view pictures of models with unobtainable body types. The media is one of the top contributors to adolescents’ view of self-image. A study in Fiji of teenage girls “found that the prevalence of eating disorders increased dramatically after the introduction of American TV programs” ('Easier access to media by children increases risk for influence on numerous health issues”). Watching TV constantly reminds viewers of everything that they are not, and is dangerous especially in the lives of kids and teenagers because they are in the developmental years of their lives. If kids are constantly shown something while their brains are maturing, those messages are going to stay with those kids for the rest of their lives. Thus, it is crucial to be aware of what messages kids and teenagers are retaining from the television they are watching.

In addition to the fashion industry, general advertisements use women that portray unrealistic body standards in order to sell certain products. A study in 1987 was conducted by asking people with and without eating disorders: “Do you believe that the [advertisements] you see and hear create strong images of the desirability of being thin, thereby inducing you to keep weight down?” The study found that “ninety one percent of those with eating disorders answered ‘yes’ to this question” and “fifty four percent percent of those without eating disorders responded in the affirmative” (Peterson). This study shows how the TV we watch has caused many people to alter how they eat in hopes to change their physical appearance. The unhealthy impact of various television programs and advertisements is obvious and their negativity in society is something that started to be recognized in the late 1900s.

Along with the issue of advertisement, eating disorders started to be addressed in the late 1900s as well. An article from 1981 depicts the experience of a 17 year-old with bulimia, describing it as “the recently recognized binge-eating disorder that primarily affects adolescent and young adult females with history of being overweight” (Fischer). Around this time, many articles started being published with contents pertaining to eating disorders and doctors’ recognition and efforts to address this issue. Doctors were the main force that helped to bring attention to eating disorders. As mentioned in the New York Times article from 1981, “Eating disorders of youths explored,” people such as Dr. Katherine A. Halmi, a pediatrician, psychiatrist, and director of the Eating Disorders Program at New York Hospital - Cornell Medical Center played an important role in bringing awareness to eating disorders and the damage that they can do. Once people in positions of power started releasing data that supported the existence of eating disorders, they started to be taken seriously, and people with these disorders started receiving more help (Fischer).

As soon as articles started to be written about eating disorders and doctors spoke more openly about the issue, actions started to be taken on the medical level (Hochman). Organizations also started to develop in order to help those struggling with eating disorders. However, advertisements continued to portray unhealthy standards and being skinny remained the ideal. The lack of action in the advertising field is one of the key factors that prevented eating disorders from being discouraged; the lack of change in this department prevented much decrease in the prominence of eating disorders. What is seen in advertisements and the prevalence of eating disorders are directly correlated, and with more attention to the relationship between the two, steps can be taken towards a healthier mindset toward body image in the United States (Peterson).


  1. 'New Woman: Who was the “New Woman?”.' History in Dispute, edited by Robert J. Allison, vol. 3: American Social and Political Movements, 1900-1945: Pursuit of Progress, St. James Press, 2000, pp. 165-173. U.S. History in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2876300029/UHIC?u=headroyces&sid=UHIC&xid=b184f50e. Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.
  2. 'Easier access to media by children increases risk for influence on numerous health issues.' Obesity & Diabetes Week, 15 June 2009, p. 75. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A202781797/ITOF?u=headroyces&sid=ITOF&xid=fee90766. Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.
  3. Peterson, Robin T. “Bulimia and Anorexia in an Advertising Context.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 6, no. 6, 1987, pp. 495–504. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25071688.
  4. Fowler, Rebecca. 'How to end the fashion famine; Super-thin models worry us all. Rebecca Fowler says that advertising power could succeed where parents and doctors have failed.' Independent [London, England], 1 June 1996, p. 17. General OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A67109671/ITOF?u=headroyces&sid=ITOF&xid=c1fdcab4. Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.
  5. Hochman, Nancy. (1996, Apr 28). Eating disorders strike younger girls and men. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/109639177?accountid=39972
  6. Fawcett, H. (2006). FASHIONING THE SECOND WAVE: ISSUES ACROSS GENERATIONS. Studies in the Literary Imagination, 39(2), 95-113,149. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/198094255?accountid=39972
  7. Fischer, Arlene (1981, May 31). Eating disorders of youths explored. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/121759661?accountid=39972
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