Students look at media effects on eating disorders

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Introduction to Mass Communications is a class of about 300 students. It introduces many of these students to the history, evolution and influences of the mass media. Each year when he teaches his class of hundreds, Professor Robert Darden gives a lecture on the effects of advertising on men and, even more significantly, women. He explains how the images presented by the media present unrealistic ideals and goals that negatively impact media consumers’ self-esteem, body images and personal welfare.

Darden said that each year students come to him personally expressing the significance of that lecture.

“Each year I’m contacted by an increasing number of students who are struggling with body image or know someone who is,” Darden said. “It’s a dark, dirty secret, and it’s a relief to talk about it.”

This year, Fordland, Mo. freshman Collin Kensinger was inspired by the class to create a survey for his fellow Baylor students, to poll whether they were just as affected by idealized media images.

He gave the survey, which asked questions about participant’s body images, to about 100 female students studying in Moody Library. The results confirmed what the class had taught about media dangers and effects.

“I was interested to see if it was apparent on this college campus, and it definitely is, after [doing] that survey. Out of the 100, 20% said they have or have had an [eating disorder],” Kensinger said.

Dr. Emma Wood, a clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s and gender issues and self-esteem at the Baylor Health Center, agreed that media images largely contribute to issues of body perception and eating disorders, even among Baylor students.

“The images that we see in everyday life are less impactful than the images we see in the media, advertisements and print. They are very specifically chosen and designed images that impact what we see as normative, even though they are not really normative,” Wood said. “I think that Baylor is representative of American culture. It’s not immune to the pressure and expectations that general American culture has for women, Just because we are a Christian university doesn’t mean that students don’t struggle.”

Wood said that media images of thin women and muscular men come to represent what is normal or natural among viewers, even though they do not reflect the realistic range of healthy body types. When viewers internalize these images, they may come to be dissatisfied with their own bodies.

Bellville sophomore Hannah Byrd has seen this impact in her own life and in the lives of her peers.

“I think it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly puts the idea in your head that this is the idealized body, especially when you’re younger. It’s hard to understand why you think that that’s the ideal body type, but I definitely think when that is surrounding you all the time and you only see this one type of body portrayed as beautiful or pretty, I think that affects you, even if it’s subconsciously,” Byrd said.

Wood said that one must begin to counter these images by talking about them and acknowledging that they do not reflect reality.

“I think we need to be talking about it. We need to remind each other that what we’re seeing isn’t reality,” Wood said.

Darden’s aim in his class lecture is to get that conversation started. Students like Kensinger, through their own actions, can keep it going.

Inspired by his initial survey, Kensinger may now recruit students to give girls encouraging messages, along with cards that list helplines for those with serious eating issues.

“I definitely want to bring up a campus movement. It might not generate anything big, but at least get awareness out there,” Kensinger said.