Deconstructing Pop Culture’s Impact on Eating Disorders

eating disorder due to pop culture

Eating disorders, like many mental illnesses, are extremely complex and often misunderstood. Researchers have made significant strides in understanding the underlying factors associated with eating disorders, shedding light on both biological and environmental contributors. 28-74% of the risk for eating disorders is through genetic heritability (Arcelus, 2011). Besides this, the prevalence of diet culture in society with the constant admiration of a certain body shape also plays a contributing role. 

Sociocultural elements play a villainous role in maintaining the toxic idea that “thin is the way to go”.  Additionally, it is also important to note that eating disorders go beyond the notion of hyperfixing on weight, rather it is a battle with underlying triggers that are associated with depression, self-harming thoughts and behaviour, traumatic experiences, interpersonal conflicts, substance use, low self-esteem, and feelings of anxiety. Many mental health professionals argue that the media not only falsely represents eating disorders but it also glamorizes them.

Through this article, we wish to highlight two observations. First, how pop culture (collection of ideas, practices, beliefs, images, objects, and phenomena that are prevalent and widely accepted within mainstream society at a given point in time) misrepresents eating disorders. Secondly, we wish to touch upon how easy accessibility to the internet exposes the population to toxic ideas of the body and further equates thinness as the ideal body shape. 

Defining Eating Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 classifies eating disorders as a severe disturbance in eating behaviour that is linked to distressing thoughts and emotions. They are associated with behaviours like obsession over body weight, body shape, and the type of food being consumed. Other behaviours commonly linked with eating disorders are binge eating and purging, self-induced vomiting, consuming laxatives, and obsessive exercising. 

Read More: Influence of the Influencer: Behind the Social Media Curation

The DSM-5 is used to categorise eating disorders, such as Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa. Severe dietary restrictions and a false perception of body weight are hallmarks of anorexia nervosa, which results in low body weight. Binge-Eating Disorder is characterised by recurrent episodes of binge eating. Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders include discomfort linked to food, body image, and eating behaviours. Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a newly defined eating disorder characterised by high pickiness and a chronic inability to achieve nutritional needs due to an eating disturbance.

The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) (2015), conducted a survey and found that around 2% of the Indian population suffers from eating disorders. Another study) conducted in 2018 found that eating disorders affected 6.5% of adolescent girls in India. Many other studies have stated that the prevalence of eating disorders amongst women is higher (Eating Disorder Awareness Week in India 2023, 2023). However, there comes a lot of stigma and misapprehension regarding eating disorders because of which a lot of cases remain unreported.  This means that the statistics on the prevalence of eating disorders in India might be higher. 

The Thin Ideal: Media, Influencers, and Society’s Impact on Body Image and ED

The inadequate discourse on eating disorders in society indeed fosters misconceptions and stigma, affecting both the younger generation and the general public. While textbooks and formal education touch on the subject, the limited space in textbooks restricts the depth of understanding that can be conveyed. Young individuals are exposed to a barrage of images and ideas that glorify unrealistic beauty standards, promoting thinness as an ideal. This stark contradiction between what is learned through formal education and what is seen on social media only deepens the misunderstandings surrounding eating disorders.

Influencers Media

Influencers, celebrities, and social media see “fit” to be synonymous with “thinness.” This propagates the idea of thinness being the ideal standard of the body. These influencers promote diets, workouts, and lifestyles that may not be sustainable or healthy for everyone.  The constant exposure to these views can have a  damaging effect on one’s view of the body and can lead to unhealthy behaviours. 

Body shapers are popularly endorsed by many influencers. This is especially so when research has stated that clothing that is too tight, constricts the internal organs and can lead to health problems. Body shapers and corsets promise a temporary illusion of the ideal body shape, but the risks they pose to one’s well-being are significant. 

In India and many other cultures, the term “fat” is used as an insult or is considered taboo. This notion is also portrayed in films and other media. This perpetuates the idea that thinness is virtuous and should be strived to achieve. Such societal pressures can lead to individuals pursuing unhealthy weight loss methods, including crash diets and excessive exercise, which can trigger or worsen eating disorder.


Advertisements about detox teas, weight loss supplements and various diet products are often presented as the gateway to happiness. They often depict the before-and-after images, often depicting someone as unhappy and overweight before they magically transform into a gleeful and svelte individual. 

The consequence of these ads is the reinforcement of unrealistic ideas that one’s happiness and self-worth are tied to their weight or appearance. In the media, the portrayal of different body types remains problematic and is far from inclusive and accurate.  

From hiring actors who do not have the body type to represent a fat and curvy character’s role to stereotyping curvy individuals with roles specifically for comedic relief, all of these themes are prevalent in pop culture and contribute to stigmatization. 

Reality Shows

Reality shows about weight loss, such as The Biggest Loser, normalise the idea of changing one’s appearance to “fit in”. Most of the main characters in sitcoms and films are never fat. If characters like these do appear, they are often at the receiving end of negative remarks and jokes. On Friends, for example, the character of Monica is shown as being overweight in flashbacks and subjected to corny jokes.

Pop Culture’s Depiction of ED

If we focus solely on India’s pop culture, there is an absence of depiction of eating disorders in mainstream media. If they are even mentioned, they are just a peripheral issue, a mere experience of a side character, and are brushed off without being given any focus. 

Shefali Shah’s character in Dil Dhadakne Do to Aayushman Khurana in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, the list is sadly not extensive. 

When we move to focus on Hollywood, it seems like the directors are focused on showing the struggle of a rich, thin white woman with eating disorders (particularly anorexia nervosa). Hollywood seems to have forgotten that discrimination is not an aspect of eating disorders. From Mean Girls’  depiction of Regina’s obsession with weight to the almost glamorised version of binge-eating in Gossip Girls, there is no lack of portrayal of eating disorders in Hollywood. 

These films can definitely do better. By extending the representation of eating disorders among different demographics, delving into eating disorders not usually shown on screen, and just making it uncomfortable to watch, the depiction of them would undoubtedly improve (Singh, 2023). Improving the depiction of eating disorders can be achieved by broadening representation across diverse demographics, exploring less commonly portrayed types of eating disorders, and making the subject matter uncomfortable to watch.

It is also easy to notice that these films and sitcoms make eating disorders a white woman’s problem. Depictions of eating disorders in Hollywood disproportionately feature characters who are heterosexual (75.56%), White (84.85%), female (89.39%), and under the age of 30 (84.85%). This portrayal does not authentically represent the demographic diversity of those affected by eating disorders (Bassett, 2023).


Discussing these aspects of popular culture becomes important while discussing the topic of eating disorders because studies have shown that the widespread use of social media (that gives us access to pop culture) in teenagers and young adults could increase body dissatisfaction as well as their drive for thinness, therefore rendering them more vulnerable to eating disorders (Jiotsa et al, 2021).

Exit mobile version