The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Jet Fuel and a Handful of No Regrets: The subtle reasons why Media Literacy is so important when it comes to messages about food and weight

Earlier this week we were prepping for a media literacy presentation when we came across a few examples that point to some of the very reasons why media literacy education is so important.  Of course, it’s always very easy to locate magazine ads that exemplify the ills of photoshopping (cue the recent ALDO billboard photoshop fail) or products that perpetuate an unhealthy body ideal and the sexualization of girls (cue the recent Abercrombie & Fitch push-up bikini for 8 year olds).  And, there’s certainly no shortage of  overtly harmful (and grossly inaccurate) claims about food and weight in ads for trendy diets and diet products.  These, unfortunately, very effective ads rake in more than $40 billion a year for the diet industry.  But some of the messages we get about weight, size and food are much more subtle and in many ways, that makes them even more detrimental.

Check out these two ads for almonds found in Men’s Health – a men’s fitness magazine.   Despite the magazine’s title and efforts at health-focused articles, most readers would agree, the general tone of the magazine is usually just as image-focused as any women’s fashion magazine.   Focus on health often seems secondary to the focus on rock-hard abs and a heavy dose of scantily-clad women.  However, we found the following almond ads were somewhat effective at marketing the product in a healthful and holistic way without focusing on the body. What do you think?

“A Handful of Good News…because they’re packed with great stories to tell. Like how just a handful a day gives you 6g protein, 3.5g fiber and can even help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels.”

“A handful of jet fuel. Grab a snack that’ll give you a boost anytime, anywhere. A handful of heart-smart, nutrient-rich California Almonds with 6 grams of protein power can be just the lift you need. It can even help you maintain healthy cholesterol.”

To be honest, we were fairly surprised to see an ad for anything in this men’s fitness magazine that didn’t include a photoshopped close-up of a chiseled body.  But we were  pleasantly surprised to see these ads focusing on health vs. weight and even highlighting the utility of the body vs. how it looks.  Eating for nourishment and strength to do the things that we enjoy – for example, playing with your kids – is a healthful concept that we fully support and one that is also important throughout the eating disorder recovery process.

We were fully prepared to give this company an A+  for their marketing messages until we found the ads’ female counterparts in Real Simple, a women’s magazine that generally delivers a better-than-average display of body/size diversity and emphasizes physical and mental well-being.  Notice the difference in the  marketing  of the same exact product when it is targeted towards women?

“A handful of chocolate-covered permission. Looking to maximize goodness and minimize guilt? Satisfy more than just your sweet tooth with the antioxidant-rich duo of dark chocolate and California Almonds.”
“A handful of no regrets…Want a simple snack without the guilty aftertaste? Make sure your heart-smart, nutrient-rich California almonds are always within reach. Just a handful a day can help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels.”

Internal feelings of “guilt” and “regret” are introduced to the female consumer where previously existed “good news” and “fuel”.  A very different message gets portrayed – one that implies women should rely on external permission to have a snack instead of their own body’s internal hunger cues and legitimate need for nourishment and strength.  These ads also suggest that women should feel guilty or experience regret if they eat certain foods.  These are not uncommon experiences for individuals who struggle with disordered eating*, and it is often this very cycle of eating and the subsequent guilt/regret that perpetuates chronic dieting and many of the symptoms involved with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders.  While extreme dieting and eating disorders are a growing problem for both females and males, this marketing campaign clearly capitalizes on the female experience.

Ads such as these do not cause negative body image or disordered eating by themselves.  However, they help to perpetuate unhealthy beliefs within a culture that is already saturated with mixed message about food, weight and an obsession with unrealistic beauty ideals.  Most interesting in this example may be the clear distinction between the two genders.   It’s essential to educate youth and adults about media literacy so we can collectively begin to protect ourselves and our families from the repercussions.  It’s also important to remember that sometimes the very subtle messages about how we “should” relate to food are even more invasive than those with obvious intentions to mislead us.

Be a critical viewer of the media.  Question the images and the advertisements you come across.  Compare ads that are targeted to different genders, ethnicities and ages.   Ask yourself what messages they are sending and what effect they might have.

Do you consider yourself to be media literate?  How do you resist subtle messages like the ones discussed above? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on our Facebook Page and follow us on Twitter.

*Disordered Eating: A significant deviation from normalized eating patterns that may include dieting, fasting, bingeing, or skipping meals. Disordered eating disregards internal regulation of hunger and fullness and provides the body with much more or much less than the body needs to function properly.  Instead of feeling good after a meal, someone who has disordered eating will often experience feelings of guilt, shame, discomfort, fear or discontent.

One thought on “Jet Fuel and a Handful of No Regrets: The subtle reasons why Media Literacy is so important when it comes to messages about food and weight

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