FeminismMedia SkepticismPop Culture

What Does Media Mean to Me?

Recently I was lucky enough to get to see a screening of Miss Representation, a documentary about women’s representation in the media. I’m going to be honest and say I’m quite smitten with the movie, I could probably talk about it for hours, but I’m going to try to limit myself to talking about what the movie didn’t touch on: real world consequences for women of bad media attention. If you do have the opportunity to see the movie, I highly encourage you to as it was incredibly informative, provocative, and clearly illustrated that sexism is alive and well. If you want to look up a screening, their website has a list of times and places. Apologies in advance to non-US readers, as this will focus on US culture and statistics. 

Miss Representation focuses around the ways in which women are portrayed in the media: how they are sexualized, made into objects against which violence can be enacted, how their bodies are turned into a selling ground for advertisers, how women leaders cannot be respected no matter what they do…etc. etc. etc. It’s a bleak media landscape for women, but the question that bothered me throughout the movie was “what does this mean for me?” How do these media stereotypes and attacks on women affect my life, the lives of women around me? What does it mean to women’s lives that the media is waging an active war on them?

To begin with, it means some pretty startling statistics for mental illness. According to the movie, 65% of women and girls in America have eating disorders. Let that sink in for a moment and realize that anorexia and bulimia have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness with 20% of all sufferers from anorexia dying. EDNOS and bulimia death rates are slightly different, but still high. In addition, women’s rates of depression are 70% higher than men’s according to the National Institute for Mental Health. While women are significantly less likely to succeed at committing suicide, they attempt it at a far higher rate. These kinds of statistics show that something about the way women are raised in America is hugely detrimental to their mental health, and especially when we look at the eating disorder statistics we can link those problems back to media. Eating disorder rates have skyrocketed in the last 10 years, and this is the same time that media is becoming more and more sexualized and fashion is aiming for skinnier and skinnier models. While this may all be correlation it seems unlikely, and as someone who suffers from an eating disorder personally, I can safely say that media played a direct role in shaping my depression into an eating disorder. The media has an effect on how women view themselves and their bodies, and this has lead to deaths. It is important for those of us who consume media and who can help hold the media responsible to understand that there is more at stake than someone’s quality of life: actual lives are involved.

In addition, the prevalence of violence against women in the movies, video games, and television has created a culture in which rape and violence are condoned, another point made by Miss Representation. But how does violence against women get played out in day to day life? According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, making women a whopping 85% of all the victims of domestic abuse. From the same source, “Intimate partner homicides accounted for 30% of the murders of women”.  To put these numbers in perspective, in 2000, 1247 women were killed in domestic abuse incidents in the US. 5000 women were killed worldwide in honor killings. While these two types of incidents are not entirely comparable, they are similar and it is shocking to realize how antiquated the US looks in its treatment of women. In addition, estimates of rape in the US range from 1 in 4 to 1 in 6 women experiencing attempted rape in her lifetime. Especially concerning is the fact that rape of girls under 12 is on the rise. This may be linked to the sexualization of young girls in shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras. Again, it is not clear that the media plays a direct role in the violence towards women. However it is clear that advertisements often circulate around rape jokes, or violence towards women, and the attitude towards women in many music videos treats them as props to be disposed of at will. The Grand Theft Auto video game series even makes it an explicit goal to beat women in some cases. This makes it hard to believe that these horrific violence rates cropped up all on their own.

The examples of violence towards women and mental disorders are extreme. They illustrate that the media can have the effect of destroying women’s bodies and minds, and in some cases killing them. Books and books have been written about the effects of the media on women’s and girls self-esteem and confidence, and the effects those things have on women’s abilities to succeed as leaders, in the sciences, and to gain high-ranking positions. The media is not an abstract entity that portrays women in a bad light with no real world consequences. The media’s role in our society is powerful and pervasive and leads to serious problems for women in their daily lives. It means that we have to work harder to gain respect, and to get jobs. It means we have to be constantly vigilant about rape and abuse, put up with street harassment, and dress oh so carefully to walk the line between attractive and slutty. But more than any of these things, the media can literally destroy women’s lives through depression, eating disorders, and domestic violence. The fact that women are dying because of the media is often ignored, but it makes it clear that there truly is a war on women.

EDIT:numbers around eating disorder mortality were slightly off and have been adjusted.

Previous post

Guest Post: Fad Diets

Next post

ScienceSunday: Flying on an Airplane



Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. March 25, 2012 at 11:42 pm —

    I think some of your numbers are not quite right concerning mortality and eating disorders. If 13% of women and girls died of eating disorder related causes, it would be the third leading cause of death for women, behind heart disease and cancer. Per the CDC it is not even in the top 10 causes of death. I really enjoyed Miss Representation, but I'm not sure that the numbers add up. Is it possible the film said that 65% of women have disordered eating? 

  2. March 27, 2012 at 10:18 am —

    It's entirely possible I multiplied incorrectly, or also that the 20% figure for anorexia doesn't apply to other eating disorders as a mortality rate. I believe the film said eating disorders, not disordered eating. If you have different numbers, I'm happy to edit.

    • March 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm —

      According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the lifetime prevalence for adult women with the following disorders is: Anorexia 0.9%, Bulimia 0.5%, and Binge Eating Disorder 3.5%, in total that is 4.9%. For female adolescents, the occurance of an eating disorder (statistics includes anorexia, bulemia, and binge eating) is 3.7%. These stats are slightly lower, but not considerably so, than the high end estimates available on the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. In addition, I think that the 20% mortality rate is only associated with Anorexia, not necessarily other eating disorders. I'm not sure how the filmakers arrived at the 65% statistic based on the available data. 

  3. March 27, 2012 at 4:04 pm —

    I did specify the 20% was only for anorexia, that's true. However you're leaving out EDNOS, which is a huge factor. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating have very particular qualifications, whereas EDNOS is the category that the largest number of ED sufferers fall into. I can't find any good numbers though…NEDA cites 10 million women in the US with anorexia or bulimia, but doesn't include EDNOS, and the National Institute of Mental Health doesn't address EDNOS at all. There's also a lot of serious diagnostic issues, and the criteria for eating disorders are getting revamped pretty seriously in the DSM V. It's a really hard number to specify because huge numbers of people don't get treatment and don't get diagnosed. I think you're right to question the number, it did seem to me too (which is why it stood out and I put it in), but I think the fact that most of the numbers cited are almost 10 years old on a lot of cites, don't include EDNOS, and aren't accounting for newer diagnostic techniques might be part of why some of the more conservative orgs are skewing towards low numbers.

    • March 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm —

      I did notice the lack of data on EDNOS, but I still find the 65% figure stunningly high. If the actual number is well over 50%, the data available isn't skewed, it is patently wrong. If you look at figures for depression which is related, about 10% of American's are affected. I don't mean to undermine the importance of eating disorders, but I am pretty skeptical of any claim that a sizeable majority of Americans have a deadly mental illness.   

      • March 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm —

        Based upon the size expectations of women and the hyper obsession of our culture with dieting, it wouldn't surprise me as much as that kind of number on any other disease. I agree it's still suspect though, but I can't find what looks to be a good number. 

  4. April 19, 2012 at 9:35 am —

    Eating disorder is one of the leading cause of death for most women in the United States alone. This is because most victims suffer from emotional struggles in trying to please themselves and those around them of how society see nowadays as "Thin is beauty". WE should take extra efforts in helping stop this and help save lives. Great article. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a reply