The Media and Body Image: If Looks Could Kill

Maggie Wykes and Barrie Gunter
London: Sage, 2005

Reviewed by Karen McGarry, Lecturer, Trent University

In The Media and Body Image: If Looks could Kill, Maggie Wykes and Barrie Gunter adopt an interdisciplinary perspective to explore the relationship between representations of an idealized femininity in the mass media and the increasing prevalence of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia among women in predominately Western (and especially American and British) socio-cultural contexts. While they acknowledge that men also suffer from eating disorders, far more women than men self-starve and, “it is women’s bodies, rather than any other attributes, which appear to make them worthy of being represented” (206). Indeed, appearance is key to women’s success, and as such, there exists a more widespread female preoccupation and dissatisfaction with body image, leading to more extreme weight control tactics. Drawing upon both theory and recent empirical studies within the fields of psychology, women’s studies, sociology, cultural studies, and media studies, their goal is to critically and comprehensively engage with recent trends within mainstream societal discourses which blame the mass media for promoting unrealistic gendered expectations for women. Indeed, in popular narratives of causative factors of eating disorders (ironically even within journalistic discourse itself) the mass media is positioned as the culprit of a growing “pandemic” of eating disorders. To explore these public perceptions, Wykes’ and Gunter’s research goals are twofold. First, they ask whether or not the female images and representations promoted by the media – in magazines, on television, the internet, and newspapers and films – serve as causative factors in increased instances of eating disorders. Second, they ask how the consumers of such images interpret mediated images of women. These questions, they argue, are often neglected and/or inadequately addressed within academic studies of eating disorders, and they attempt to provide a comprehensive overview and synthesis of existing academic research on this subject.

The first half of the book addresses the volatile nature of idealized notions of femininity in Western culture, the historical context of eating disorders (including various antecedents of anorexia and bulimia), and the various theoretical models that have developed to explore such phenomena. Ultimately, they argue that the mass media both reinforce and reproduce hegemonic images of femininity “within a whole history of cultural constructions of femininity” (207). Overall, this section provides an extremely detailed, comprehensive, and highly readable synthesis of a wide variety of theoretical debates within feminist theory, and it would nicely complement undergraduate courses on the anthropology of gender, feminism, or mass media.

The second section of the book, which focuses on the varied responses of the consumers of mediated images, is somewhat disappointing when read from an anthropological perspective. While Wykes and Gunter should be commended for synthesizing such a wide range of perspectives from different disciplines, the vast amount of data explored in this book often obscures the nuanced, detailed discourses and localized responses that anthropologists are typically concerned with. While ethnographic, anthropological studies of mass media are a relatively new development within the discipline, there exist several noteworthy ethnographic studies of anorexia, focusing on how specific groups of women perceive mediated images as well as the medicalization of the disease. Gremillion (2003), for instance, in her study of anorexic patients in one treatment center, found that various techniques of medical and staff surveillance of patients may have the unintentional consequence of fostering eating disorders.

Wykes and Gunter, despite their efforts to be comprehensive, overlook much of this material, and focus instead on theories developed with psychology, and to a lesser extent, sociology (e.g. cultivation theory, social comparison theory, self-schema theory), which are nevertheless insightful. While they recognize the varied interpretations of imagery, as well as the limitations of surveys and experimental research which form the basis of such models, their insistence on privileging “objective scientific data” obscures the fact that consumer responses to mediated images will be contradictory, ambiguous, contested, and most significantly, highly variable depending upon identities of class, race, ethnicity, cultural context, and a host of other factors (153).

The authors do discuss studies which address the role of race, ethnicity, and other demographic considerations in relation to the onset of various eating disorders, and they acknowledge the geographical spread of disease through migration, immigration, and the globalizing effects of the mass media. Their overview of these considerations, however, is oftentimes overly brief and cursory. For example, they neglect to adequately address the convergences between instances of eating disorders and other identities like social class. Why, for example, are eating disorders so prevalent among middle or upper classes? In addition, anorexia and bulimia are often (unintentionally) portrayed as monolithic illnesses, despite an increasing abundance of literature attesting to the fact that such illnesses have localized effects and symptoms (e.g. Lee et al. 1993).

Overall, despite some redundancy in various arguments throughout, this book is well written, easily accessible for a variety of academic audiences, including both undergraduate and graduate students, and it provides an important synthesis of various cross-disciplinary research and discourses about eating disorders. While it does not necessarily offer any new perspectives about such disorders, it provides (especially in the first half) an excellent overview of existing theoretical developments on the subject.

References Cited:
Gremillion, Helen
2003 Feeding Anorexia: Gender and Power at a Treatment Center. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lee, Sing, Ho, T.P. and K. G. Hsu
1993 Fat phobic and non-fat phobic anorexia nervosa: A comparative study of 70 Chinese patients in Hong Kong. Psychological Medicine 23: 999-1017.

Karen McGarry received her PhD in Social Anthropology in 2003 from York University, Toronto. Her research interests include analyses of cultural constructions of gender, sexuality, and national identity in sport and other mass-mediated spectacles. Her dissertation consisted of an ethnographic analysis of Olympic-level Canadian figure skaters, focusing on the production of a gendered notion of national identity within mediated, transnational environments.

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