A new VH1 show called "The Price of Beauty," hosted by Jessica Simpson, will premiere soon. The theme of the show is the extreme measures that some women will endure to look beautiful. It's a worthy subject, but unfortunately the series is already spreading misinformation about a serious disease: anorexia.
In one of the first episodes, Simpson and her friends interview former model Isabelle Caro, who suffers from anorexia. Caro made international news a few years ago by putting a photo of her emaciated frame on billboards. She is now an activist trying to pass a law prohibiting very thin women from becoming professional models.
Simpson told Oprah in a recent interview, "It makes me very emotional because just the pressure that women feel to be thin or to be beautiful–the pressure that the media puts on women–is so unfair and so disgusting." The show's efforts seem sincere, but its understanding of anorexia leaves much to be desired. The concern over thin models is nothing new, to either the media or the fashion industry.
What Isabelle Caro, Jessica Simpson, and the VH1 show don't realize is that anorexia has little or nothing to do with fashion modeling. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are biological diseases, not voluntary behaviors. The idea that a model, photo of a model, or Web site can "encourage" anorexia is not supported by science or research. Images of thin people cannot "encourage" anorexia, any more than photographs of bipolar patients "encourage" bipolar disorder, or photos of diabetics "encourage" diabetes.
Though many people are convinced that anorexia is a threat to most young women because of the media images they see, that's not what the scientific evidence says. Anorexia is a very rare and complex psychological disorder with many indications of a strong genetic component; as anorexia expert Cynthia Bulik noted in her 2007 study "The Genetics of Anorexia," published in the Annual Review of Nutrition, "Family studies have consistently demonstrated that anorexia nervosa runs in families." Most research studies have failed to find a cause-and-effect link between media images of thin people and eating disorders.
For example, R.A. Botta, writing in his 1999 study, "Television Images and Adolescent Girls' Body Image Disturbance" in the Journal of Communication, noted that, "Concrete evidence is still necessary...to show that this existence of thin images and ideals has an effect on viewers....At this point, the relationship between television exposure and body image disturbance remains in question." This view is supported by other researchers including Heidi Posavac, who wrote in her 1998 Sex Roles journal study, "Exposure to Media Images of Female Attractiveness and Concern with Body Weight Among Young Women" that "experimental investigations have not found a link between exposure to the media ideal and increased concern with weight."
Nearly every woman in America regularly sees thin women in everyday life and the media, yet according to the National Institute of Mental Health, only about one percent of them develop the disease. If there a strong link existed between media exposure and anorexia, we would expect to see an incidence many orders of magnitude higher than is found.
Anorexia is a tragic disease; some young women (and men) do diet to excess and have body image issues. But the scientific research shows that they are the exception, not the rule. The first step in solving a problem is correctly understanding it, and TV shows like "The Price of Beauty" may actually end up doing more harm than good.
Since research suggests that the causes of anorexia have more to do with genetics than thin fashion models, efforts to educate young girls about the artificiality of airbrushed media images won't do anything to treat or cure anorexia. Girls and young women deserve facts and truth instead of myths and misinformation.