It’s long been held that waif-thin models posing in fashion and beauty magazines encourage young women to follow unhealthy eating habits—possibly bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Now, researchers at Brigham Young University have discovered “thin is in” messages aren’t the only ones leading to eating disorders—the “hard bodies” in women’s health and fitness magazines do also.
In a study published in the June 2001 issue of the American Journal of Health Education, BYU researchers interviewed girls at two high schools near Salt Lake City, Utah. They found those practicing certain unhealthy weight-control practices were significantly more likely to be frequent readers of women’s health and fitness magazines. They also discovered girls who read these types of magazines frequently scored higher on a test that measures anorexic tendencies than girls who didn’t read them.
Steven R. Thomsen, associate professor of communications at BYU and lead author on the article, said while the researchers couldn’t say reading the magazines causes eating disorders, they do believe many young women who peruse these magazines increase their risk of developing an eating disorder. “We believe women’s health and fitness magazines may be an important sociocultural influence in the development or perpetuating of eating disorder attitudes,” said Thomsen.
The two most common eating disorders are:
Anorexia nervosa: Characterized by intense fear of gaining weight. Behavior includes excessive weighing, excessive measuring of body parts, and persistently using a mirror to check body size. Weight loss is viewed as an impressive achievement and an example of extraordinary self-discipline.
Bulimia nervosa: Involves binge eating and compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain. Between 80 to 90 percent of bulimics will induce vomiting. Other behaviors include misuse of laxatives, fasting and excessive exercise.
A Vested Interest
Many scientists pursue their research interest based on intellectual curiosity or to investigate a subject that intrigues them. Although both factors played a part in Thomsen’s research, his personal life also had a role; his teenage daughter has an eating disorder. “In my family, we’ve been touched directly by eating disorders and had extra motivation to do research on them,” he said.
Prior to this research, Thomsen studied the relationship between women’s beauty and fashion magazines, and the effect of television on eating disorder behaviors. Thomsen began this latest study after noting the correlation between the growing circulation of women’s health and fitness magazines in the late 1990s and the increased dieting rates of teenage girls during the same time frame. Thomsen, along with Lora Beth Brown, a BYU food science and nutrition professor, and Michelle Weber, then a BYU undergraduate, decided to investigate whether the two trends were related.