American society, perhaps more than any other, is a culture that immerses itself in visual images. Products are sold through photographs in advertisements, newspapers and magazines. They are endorsed by beautiful people in live-action TV commercials. Consumers plunk down millions of dollars each year to attend movies, escaping their own realities through the world of the big screen, a world populated by actors and models whose bodies seem sculpted and toned to perfection.

In personal relationships, what people see seems to play a bigger role in their first impressions of others than what they are. If a person's image is not precisely tweaked, dreams of potential friendships, romances and even career opportunities can be dashed in the blink of an eye.

Startling Statistics
With such a substantial emphasis placed on appearances in our culture, women of the United States are virtually obsessed with their bodies. Body image problems are proliferating, with approximately 80 percent of all U.S. women admitting to being dissatisfied with their figures.

The unhappiness and shame that many American women feel when looking at themselves in the mirror can be manifested in a number of harmful ways. While some women will never go beyond a healthy diet and exercise regimen, others may fall victim to harmful fad dieting and supplements, binge eating, anorexia, or bulimia.

The statistics on these women, especially those of college age, are startling. Ninety-one percent of women surveyed on a college campus in 1995 admitted that they had attempted to control their weight by dieting at some point in their lives, while 25 percent of college women were found to suffer from anorexia or bulimia.

These eating disorders can have a disastrous toll on the women they affect, wreaking mental, emotional and physical havoc upon them.

Anorexia nervosa, a cycle of "self-starvation," denies the body of the fuels and nutrients that it needs to function normally. After a time, the body is forced to slow down all of its major processes in order to conserve energy, which can lead to serious medical problems including a slow heart rate, early onset of osteoporosis, muscle deterioration, dehydration, extreme fatigue and hair loss.

Bulimia nervosa is a disorder in which binge-and-purge cycles (the consumption of a large amount of food followed by vomiting or use of laxatives) can ultimately affect the entire digestive system and function of the body's major organs. Bulimia can lead to irregular heartbeats or heart failure, gastric rupture, inflammation or rupture of the esophagus after prolonged vomiting, tooth decay or staining, ulcers and pancreatitis.

Binge eating can often result in many of the same risks that are attributed to clinical obesity, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol levels, heart disease, diabetes and Gallbladder disease.

Why Us? Why Here?
What causes young American women, who live in a land of such opportunity, to fall victim to these life-threatening and life-altering disorders? According to Meaghan Calnan, a sophomore at Marist College who was hospitalized and treated for anorexia in 2002, there are a variety of factors.

"It started as a simple diet and gradually became an issue of control," Calnan said. "While I felt that other areas of my life were out of control, the numbers on the scale were something that I had complete control over and I found it empowering. Eventually, it became an addiction. It seemed as if starvation gave me some sort of high."

Many women who battle eating disorders, especially those attending high school and college, cite a similar desire to maintain control in their lives. As the country's collegiate institutions are becoming increasingly competitive with each passing year, the pressure to be involved in school and receive stellar grades, yet still be considered attractive and popular, can often be too large of a burden to bear.

The Role of the Media
There are also other factors that come into play, causing women to doubt their worth and scrutinize every inch of their bodies. Perhaps the most obvious, and the most public, is the media.

Today it is virtually impossible to go about a daily routine without being assaulted by images of thin, perfect, beautiful people. They sell everything from toothpaste to cars, sporting goods to lingerie. And although the agencies and executives who are responsible for these campaigns may be focused only on the revenue that they will generate, today's consumer-driven, ad-based, beauty-obsessed culture can have serious effects on the average American woman.

In the spring of 2004, a study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders noted that the media's portrayal of abnormally thin women can indeed have negative effects on the average female, perhaps even leading to disordered behavior.

The study, entitled "The Impact of Exposure to the Thin-Ideal Media Image on Women," involved an experimental survey of 145 female college students from Utah State University and an additional 21 female participants gathered from self-help groups and medical practices that had been diagnosed with some form of eating disorder.

The participants were divided into two groups, one of which was asked to view a binder that contained 40 photographs from popular female publications such as Cosmo and Vogue (the "thin ideal condition), while the other group was asked to view 40 advertisements that did not contain people, yet had been selected from the same magazines. A majority of the ads within this control group featured items such as jewelry and perfume.

When the survey was concluded, those women who had been asked to view the photographs of thin-ideal models reported feeling increased dissatisfaction in their own bodies and lower self-esteem.

Author Nicole Hawkins concluded, "It should not be surprising that media images influence their audience. The present findings suggest that portrayal of woman in mass circulation fashion magazines can have a powerful influence on women's self-appraisals. Exposure to the thin-ideal media images influenced body dissatisfaction, negative effect, low self-esteem, and dysfunctional eating related beliefs and perceptions."

Hawkins admitted that media presentation of these images cannot be the only factor responsible for women's body image issues. Still, she said, they must be critically examined.

For the most part, the former anorexia sufferer Calnan agreed.

"As for the media, I think too many people place too much blame on the media for eating disorders," she said. "I think it is unfair to say that the media causes eating disorders, but I can certainly understand how it can make matters worse. Oftentimes, I found I was comparing myself to television stars and using their unrealistic body types as inspiration. While in treatment, I learned that this was an example of a trigger for me -- something that encouraged my eating disorder behavior."

Calnan, a volunteer for the National Eating Disorders Association, also mentioned a study she discovered when doing research for a presentation on the ways that the media is able to affect body image.

The study, released by Harvard Medical School researchers in May of 1999, documented the rise in eating disorders among Fijian women, who had not been exposed to American television programming until 1995. Prior to that time, Fijian culture emphasized that its women should appear strong, healthy and well-fed.

In 1995, only three percent of young Fijian women (approximately aged 17) reported vomiting to control their weight. In contrast, by 1998, this number had jumped significantly to 15 percent.

The study noted that, "Only in recent years, likely reflecting the encroachment of Western beauty ideals and values, have Fijians begun to focus on heaviness rather than just thinness as a concern."

"It's amazing how easily our media seems to be able to impact not just women within the American society, but also those around the world," said Calnan.

It is important for women to realize that the models and entertainment stars that they idolize and measure themselves against are not representations of the average female American body type. Today's average American woman is 5'4 and weighs in at 140 pounds. Today's average model is 5'11 and weighs 117 pounds. These models are thinner than 98 percent of American women, yet their constant exposure through various media outlets may help to account for the 10 million women who struggle with eating disorders at any given time in our country.

Thin is In: Hollywood Eating Disorders
While the media is often blamed for its role in damaging the body image of the average American woman, the women who line the pages of popular fashion magazines and star in soaps and sitcoms also feel the pressure to look thin and fabulous.

The most recently publicized case of a well-known figure with anorexia concerned Mary-Kate Olsen. Olsen, a well-known child star, first achieved fame and recognition when she and her twin sister, Ashley, played the role of Michelle on the family sitcom Full House in the late 1980s.

Now 18 and a student at New York University, Olsen was treated in the summer of 2004 for a bout with anorexia.

For months, Olsen's experiences, from family intervention to treatment, were documented as front-page stories in popular publications like People and Us Weekly. Yet Olsen's refusal to address her disorder and speak out about its health implications has left Calnan worried that her hospitalization will simply lead to the continued glamorization of these disorders.

"The whole issue with Mary-Kate is, at least in my opinion, damaging to non-celebrities who are struggling with eating disorders," she said. "I think it is unfortunate that she has yet to speak out publicly about her ordeal and use her celebrity to raise awareness on this issue."

Calnan also expressed concern about the media's portrayal of Olsen's treatment, which took place in a posh facility and lasted only a few weeks.

"The extensive attention given to the facility at which she received treatment paints an unrealistic image of the vast majority of in-patient treatment facilities," she said.

Calnan spent two months in the hospital for in-patient treatment, during which she received daily supervision from a team of doctors, nurses, psychologists and nutritionists. She also participated in a variety of educational and therapeutic activities, including menu planning, daily meditation, art therapy, individual therapy and group therapy.

How Can We Stop the Cycle?
It seems that today's American women face a variety of factors which can lead them to have negative issues with their bodies. In order for women who suffer from eating disorders and body image problems to develop a healthier view of themselves, Calnan believes that they, as well as the media, must turn to education.

"I think the key to combating negative body image messages is education," she said. "The more people that are aware of what types of images and words can be damaging to those either struggling with or in danger of developing an eating disorder, the better. By increasing awareness and being active in speaking out against triggering advertisements, hopefully advertisers, stars and regular women will become more responsible and cautious."

Paige Nestel is a sophomore Journalism/Professional Writing major with a minor in Sociology at The College of New Jersey. She is the Opinions/Business & Government editor of unbound. In addition to her work with unbound, she is also a staff writer for The Signal, TCNJ’s student newspaper.