It’s Not Funny!

By Michelle May, M.D.

Disordered Eating and Negative Body Image Invade the Sunday Comics

I’m not kidding! 25% of the comic strips in our Sunday paper two weeks ago were somehow related to negative body image, dieting, or binge eating. This is very telling and very concerning.

ComicsOn this particular Sunday, cartoon characters were obsessing about food, lamenting over breaking their latest diet, and criticizing their appearance.

For example, one character says to her husband, “At least your butt doesn’t jiggle all over the place.” In another strip, the husband explains why there are so few recent photos of him in the family album: “Because my hair’s thin and my waist isn’t.” Even Dennis the Menace says “Gotta watch those calories Mister Wilson.”

As a professional speaker, I frequently use humor to shift my audiences’ perspective about eating. I’ve found that laughing about the funny things we think and do around food helps my audiences think about their own behaviors in a whole new way. I use these universal (and humorous) truths to make my points about the futility of dieting and help them understand what to do instead.

However, joking about dieting, negative body image, and binge eating in comic strips (which of course are also read by children) is not funny because the jokes are rarely, if ever, followed by the point that while these are common behaviors, they are not healthy behaviors. Instead, these unchallenged statements by cartoon characters reinforce our culture’s warped concept of what normal eating looks like and sends the message that a negative body image is funny.

 

No Laughing Matter

Ironically, that Sunday was the beginning of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I guess the writers didn’t get the memo!

In case you think I’m overreacting, take a look at the potential impact that dieting and body dissatisfaction has on the development of eating disorders from the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS)
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner.
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.
  • 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.
  • Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
  • 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. Overweight girls are more likely than normal weight girls to engage in such extreme dieting.
  • Even among clearly non-overweight girls, over 1/3 report dieting.
  • Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet.
  • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years.
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting.
  • Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
  • Of American, elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight.

Perhaps someone should study the effects of reading the Sunday comics on body image too!

P.S. What do you think of the photo I took for this article? In my lifelong exploration of “Things to Do Besides Eat,” I’ve taken up photography!

 

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