Demi Lovato, Disney, and Eating Disorders

A few days before this Christmas, the Disney Channel aired an episode of the show Shake It Up, in which a female character remarked to another that “I could just eat you up, well, if I ate.” A second mocking remark about eating disorders in the show So Random! was yanked from the line-up before airing. 

Former Disney actress, Demi Lovato, who left her show Sonny with a Chance last year in order to receive treatment for an eating disorder, deserves praise for being the watchdog out there on Twitter who was able to draw the network’s attention to the inappropriateness of their humor. Because of her, they took those episodes of So Random! and Shake It Up off their schedule.

 Among her tweets were “I find it really funny how a company can lose one of their actress' from the pressures of an EATING DISORDER and yet still make joke about that very disease. #nice," and “…is it just me or are the actress' [on Disney Channel] getting THINNER AND THINNER.... I miss the days of RAVEN, and LIZZIE MCGUIRE.” I think both her observations point out trends in media today---glamorizing a skeletal body type and diminishing eating disorders as medical conditions.

Before I continue, I want to point out that there are more factors in the development of an eating disorder than media messages. Genetic contributions, social pressures from family and peers, and imbalances with the brain chemical serotonin all contribute to these disorders in women and men (five percent of sufferers are male). The media does not cause eating disorders. However, the media can work with other factors to create a “perfect storm” where an individual can develop bulimia or anorexia.

As a result, when probably the most powerful media conglomerate aimed toward young children and teens mocks not eating, then this carries even more weight than most. Disney has spent decades teaching young children what is “cool” and who one needs to emulate. From Frankie and Annette to the Jonas Brothers and Ms. Lovato, herself, Disney has cultivated an industry on telling the current youngest generation what’s socially acceptable. Their influence is overwhelmingly pervasive and starts from the youngest children obsessed with Disney Princesses to the teens enjoying High School Musical or So Random! and Shake It Up. One could even argue Disney’s influence lasts far longer. Remember, Disney was the first to discover and to groom Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Ryan Gossling (among others) for fame.  These stars who remain influential today for Gen Y.

The House of Mouse is in control as a marketing venture and they spread a commanding message. What they conveyed with one airing of Shake It Up is that popular or pretty girls don’t eat. Worse, they implied that it’s funny to talk about not eating and is something for girls to brag about. This is a supremely dangerous message to send to adolescents. Teens and tweens may act mature but they’re not. Their brains are still developing, their impulse control is not completely mastered, and they are more likely to make rash decisions. If some girl or boy watching Shake It Up already had the genetic, biological, and social background required to develop an eating disorder, this blatant media send up of avoiding eating could serve as the tipping point.

 I want to thank Ms. Lovato deeply for her tweets about both the jokes and the alarming shrinking of Disney actresses. The difference between adolescent girls’ sizes on television between the 1990s and 2012 is substantial. When I see commercials for CW’s reworking of Beverly Hills, 90210,  all I can think is that women with healthier curves like Shannen Doherty or Tiffani Thiesen would not be cast as the “it girls” for the CW version. When you watched That’s So Raven! and Lizzie Maguire, you saw girls of healthy sizes and body types that reflected a wide range of the viewing audience.  The more that the actresses on Disney and other channels have to fit the stick thin mold, the more body types and realistic representations of young women disappear from our screens.

So kudos to Ms. Lovato for getting Disney to reevaluate…this time. However, that’s not going to be enough. For one, there’s always the risk Disney will go to that joke well again once the furor has died down. For another, other media outlets and adolescent friendly programs may make similar “jokes” as well. The culture needs to change at the same time that the media providers are being held accountable for the messages they send. We all have to say “Hey, I miss girls like Raven-Symone on my screen,” and “Eating disorders are not funny.” We all have to be our own watchdogs because only when enough people start insisting these images aren’t acceptable can the culture change and healthy talk about eating and body types become a mainstay.

For more information about eating disorders, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association. Also, if you’re suffering from bulimia or anorexia, regardless of gender, don’t be afraid to get help. It’s not a moral failing; it’s a disorder with a biological basis as much as any other and there’s no shame in it.

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Author’s Notes:

Tweets were copied as they were reported in the popular press. All grammar and spelling mistakes, emphasis, and capitalization come directly from the original author, Ms. Lovato.

Photo credit to Gaas/AFF-USA.COM and taken at Miley Cyrus’s Sixteenth Birthday Bash in 2008.

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