Eating disorders thrive in appearance-driven cultures. The U.S. is filled with powerful advertising executives who spend billions of dollars every year convincing us that we are not good enough as we are and that happiness and fulfillment can only be ours if we meet their stringent body and beauty requirements, which will we can do if we purchase their products.
Those of us who are vulnerable to eating disorders often fall prey to these diet, cosmetic and fashion messages without realizing it. With their messages driven deep in our subconscious, we believe we are fundamentally flawed, and that the companies promoting these products are here to help us get better.
We genuinely believe that following a diet, cosmetic, or fashion system will improve our lives. In the process, we fall down the rabbit hole of pursuing happiness through external appearance rather than working on our internal self-worth and identity. No matter how low our weight, how glossy our lips, or how perfect our outfit is, if we are fundamentally lacking in self-worth and identity, these things will not help
When looking at eating disorder ecosystems, we must carefully observe the diet, cosmetic, and fashion industries and unmask them for what they truly are: businesses. There’s nothing wrong with being in business and making money, but there is something wrong with making your money by telling people that they are flawed and need your products to be accepted and loved. Make no mistake: the marketing geniuses in the diet, cosmetic and fashion industry are key players in our eating disorder ecosystem.
Many of the best minds in business, marketing, advertising, psychology, and art come together in the diet, cosmetic, and fashion industries to build the illusion that physical perfection is possible and necessary. We don’t like to think this (free will is an illusion), it is a scientific fact that beauty standards are built, not inborn. The fact that predominantly white, blonde, very thin women have become recognized worldwide as beautiful is a function of global marketing campaigns, not something that is hardwired into our DNA. If the beauty industry had built itself on dark-skinned, curly-haired, larger-bodied women, we would firmly believe that all women should aspire to that beauty standard.
The U.S. diet industry made $66 billion in 2016. It is comprised of programs such as NutriSystem and Weight Watchers, meal replacements, prescription drugs, weight loss surgeries, medical clinics and franchises, diet food, websites, and apps. This income is shocking when it has been conclusively shown that 95% of intentional weight loss efforts result in regain and even more pounds. In short, the diet industry is openly operating despite the fact that there is zero data to support the efficacy of any of the products being sold to consumers.
The diet industry has succeeded in infiltrating two critical elements of society. First, the media is a major mouthpiece in promoting diets and weight loss despite the fact that neither has been shown effective. Second, the healthcare industry, including personal physicians, acupuncturists, hospitals, and nutritionists all promote intentional weight loss despite the fact that there is no evidence of efficacy or health improvement. In fact, people who have undergone intentional weight loss often suffer high levels of stress and higher set weights following their diet behavior.
With the media and healthcare industries fully supporting the lose weight at any cost message, the diet industry has an open path to convincing consumers to try their products. Amazingly, these consumers invest in diet after diet, consistently seeing negative results, and yet they never blame the diet – they always blame themselves. This is not by accident – the diet industry promotes the idea that “you fail the diet, the diet doesn’t fail you.” In fact, statistically, the opposite is true. In 95% of cases, the diet fails.
Pay attention to diet industry advertisements. You will notice that the vast majority of models are white, blonde, and smiling. All of these models are airbrushed and retouched. The message of these advertisements is all the same – buy our products and you will achieve lifelong weight loss.
The U.S. cosmetic industry made $84 billion in 2016 alone. This category includes skincare, hair care, make-up, perfumes, toiletries and deodorants, and oral cosmetics. $84 billion worth of products is sold every year based on the marketed belief that we are unattractive as we are, and require adornment and concealment in order to show ourselves in public.
The cosmetic industry is the reason why many women refuse to leave the house without full makeup and hairstyling. The work of being beautiful (according to cosmetic industry standards) requires as much as an hour, or even more for many women. Cosmetic marketers tell women that they must be hairless, smell like flowers, have sparkling white teeth, bouncy, shiny hair, perfectly smooth skin, long eyelashes, rosy cheeks, and colored lips and nails.
Men are not immune. While the time invested in cosmetic industry beauty standards are often lower for men, they, too, are sold a host of products meant to improve their natural (presumably nasty) selves.
The cosmetic industry does not thrive by telling us that we are beautiful just as we are. They do not make $84 billion each year when we wash with basic products, brush our hair and teeth, and leave the house confident that we look great. They only make $84 billion when we believe that what they are selling is necessary to be acceptable in society.
Pay attention to cosmetic industry advertisements. You will notice that the vast majority of models are white, blonde, and very thin. All of these models are airbrushed and retouched. The message of these advertisements is all the same – buy our products and you will achieve perfection.
The U.S. apparel market is the largest in the world. In 2016, fashion companies made approximately $292 billion dollars in 2017. U.S. consumers regularly spend more than $15 billion every month at retail clothing stores. The women’s and girls’ apparel market brings in about 25% more revenue than the men’s and boys’ apparel market.
The fashion industry thrives when we believe that clothing must be replaced and updated regularly. It also promotes the idea that we must wear different types of clothing for different events, and that our outer appearance tells the world who we are on the inside. And don’t forget that the fashion industry completely ignores 68% of women who are size 14 and above. This blatant disregard for more than half of the population can only be explained by discrimination, plain and simple.
Many women change their outfits several times before leaving the house in the morning and will change again later in the day. No matter how many items of clothing a woman has in her closet, she is still likely to despair that she has nothing to wear. The thin ideal that sells clothing (thin bodies model clothing in advertisements and mannequins) often causes women to purchase clothing that does not fit their bodies well, hoping that if they buy something too small, they will be inspired to lose weight. This results in thousands of dollars wasted on clothing that is never worn.
Many women also keep multiple wardrobes to accommodate weight cycling as they go up and down in weight in an attempt to achieve the fashion ideal of having a body as those shown in fashion. Since 95% of all people who intentionally lose weight regain that weight plus more, even one diet in which weight is lost can result in numerous complete wardrobe purchases (the starting wardrobe, the weight loss wardrobe, and the weight regain + more wardrobe).
The fashion industry does not thrive by telling us that we can wear clothes that make us feel comfortable and confident. They do not make $292 billion each year unless we constantly buy new clothes, shoes, purses, and accessories. They only make $292 billion when we believe that what they are selling will bring us joy and happiness.
Pay attention to fashion industry advertisements. You will notice that the vast majority of models are white, blonde, and very thin. All of these models are airbrushed and retouched. The message of these advertisements is all the same – buy our products and you will be happy, sexy, and desirable.
We all live in an eating disorder inducing ecosystem. With these three industries forming a powerful alliance and setting the tone for what is beautiful and, therefore, desirable in life, all of us face tremendous pressure to conform – or at least spend a lot of money trying to conform – to these beauty standards. As a result, we starve ourselves, spend money we don’t have, and waste our time and brainpower on arbitrary, unnecessary standards that support nobody but the billion-dollar industries that fuel them.
These industries are not making the world a better place – they are making more money for themselves. To protect ourselves and our children, we must become aware of their messages and work to counteract them so that we can remain confident in our innate self-worth and value as human beings, regardless of what we weight or how we appear.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with eating disorders and other struggles.