Staff Writer

June 22, 2021 (Updated )

Responsible reporting on eating disorders can make survivors feel seen and understood. Over the last few years, stories detailing the impact of eating disorders have made their way into mainstream media. The problem? Too many of these stories lean on outdated stereotypes, sensationalism, or morbid curiosity.

When an estimated 1.25 million people live with an eating disorder in the UK – a number that experts believe has skyrocketed as a result of Covid-19 – what journalists choose to say, and how they say it, matters. 

You don’t need to be an expert on eating disorders to report on them, but you need to question your assumptions by listening to survivors and consulting with experts. To start kick things off, and give you a handy guide to refer back to, we’ve taken a look through some of the basic guidelines for pieces, covering everything from pictures to the language you use. As with most types of reporting, some small changes to the way you report can go a long way.

Watch Your Pictures, Don’t Talk Calories

When choosing pictures for the piece, avoid before and after pictures. (Image Credit: Noman Shahid / Unsplash)

One of the best tools for getting to grips with reporting on eating disorders is the Beat Media Guidelines. A national charity that supports anyone experiencing the symptoms of an eating disorder, they also provide a whole range of resources for journalists, including guidelines, statistics and expert comment/case studies for reporters writing pieces about eating disorders.

Photo of blonde white woman in navy dress in front of black background
Hope Virgo has been told by journalists they won’t run content without a before picture. (Image Credit: Supplied)

Firstly, Beat advises that journalists don’t use pictures of people at their “most emaciated, skeletal, lowest weight” for articles. They could easily have been used as ‘thinspiration’ – photos which provide motivation for vulnerable people wanting to become a dangerously low weight – on pro-anorexia websites, or even find their way there as a result of your article. 

“While no journalist intends to cause harm, including specific references to calories, weight, food consumed or images of people at their most emaciated, can be highly triggering,” Tom Quinn, Beat’s Director of External Affairs, explains. “We urge all journalists to focus on the thoughts, feelings and emotions that drive the illnesses rather than graphic depiction of its consequences.”

“Including specific references to calories, weight, food consumed, or images of people at their most emancipated can be highly triggering. We urge all journalists to focus on the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that drive the illness.”

Tom Quinn, Beat

Currently, media outlets often default to ‘before and after’ images to report on anorexia. While the intention is to illustrate a person’s recovery, eating disorders are competitive illnesses which distort your sense of health.

Freelance journalist Harriet Williamson, who has been battling eating disorders since she was a teenager, says that the ‘before’ images of someone with anorexia don’t elicit sadness or pity. Instead they look attractive and desirable to her. “I find myself, even years after becoming weight-restored, wanting to be like the people in those ‘before’ pictures,” she explains. 

Similarly, she adds: “When I read an article that mentions amounts of calories, I’m thrown back into the competitive eating disordered mindset. I think: ‘If that person can survive on so few calories, I should be able to do the same’.”. 

“When I read an article that mentions amounts of calories, I’m thrown back to the competitive eating disordered mindset. I think ‘if that person can survive on so few calories, I should be able to do the same’.”

Harriet Williamson, Freelance Journalist

Just asking for sources to send these images comes with its own issues. Hope Virgo, a multiple award-winning campaigner who had anorexia, alleges that journalists have told her they won’t publish an article without including a photo of Hope while she was unwell. “I now feel like I can say ‘no I’m not doing that’, but if someone’s more vulnerable they’ll probably give that image without thinking.”

Hope advises, instead, to ask for neutral photos of the source’s face, a practice that is slowly becoming more commonplace. You could also ask for photographs of them from their childhood, out with friends or doing something they enjoy. 

Be Careful Of An Over-Emphasis On Anorexia And Women

Tom Rebair is an award-winning male campaigner. (Image Credit: Supplied)

Responsible reporting also means looking at the types of stories you’re telling too, and making sure they speak to the full spectrum of experiences. Currently, the media predominantly focuses on anorexia in its coverage. While it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illnesses, there are six other medically recognised eating disorders – but this is rarely reflected in media coverage.

“A few years ago I was doing a media analysis,” says Dr Petya Eckler, a researcher in health communication, social media and body image at the University of Strathclyde. “There was a lot of coverage in the tabloids, but they all used images of girls that lost so much weight they almost died. And that’s not helpful,” Petya continued. “[Eating disorders] are hard to explain and portray, but it’s more than anorexia. It’s more than the emaciated white girl.” 

Types Of Eating Disorders, As Listed In The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders

  • Anorexia Nervosa,
  • Bulimia Nervosa,
  • Binge Eating Disorder,
  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder,
  • Pica,
  • Rumination Disorder,
  • OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders).

Tom Rebair, an award-winning campaigner from Newcastle, says that while the media helps to push for change in eating disorder treatment, he feels he’s fighting against a tide of stereotypes. “From the lack of male inpatient beds and support, to people not believing it’s possible for men to get ill from an eating disorder, the media stereotype is offensive and dangerous,” he says. 

A study by the British Medical Journal backs up Tom’s experience. Analysing content in 10 UK newspapers over 10 years, they found that “newspaper articles represent men with eating disorders as atypical of menand as atypical of people with EDs, who are still usually portrayed as teenage girls.”

“From the lack of male inpatient beds and support, to people not believing it’s possible for men to get ill from an eating disorder, the media stereotype is offensive and dangerous.”

Tom Rebair 

The researchers argue that “such media representations frame a cultural paradigm in which there is an expectation that men may feel shame about or strive to conceal EDs.” In contrast, research from Beat has found up to 25 percent of people with eating disorders could be male.

Similarly, Megan te Boekhorst, a public relations strategist from Canada, has struggled with binge eating disorder (BED) for ten years. She says that the media directly contributes to the misconceptions of eating disorders. “I feel like I have to fight so hard for the validity of my eating disorder, but just having recognition in the media would make that fight so much easier,” she says. “If I had grown up seeing and hearing more varied stories about how eating disorders can present in everyday life, I might have been able to get help sooner.” 

“If I had grown up seeing and hearing more varied stories about how eating disorders can present in everyday life, I might have been able to get help sooner.”

Megan te Boekhorst 

It’s important for the media to shift this portrayal. To help do so, Megan suggests that you be specific – don’t just say ‘eating disorder’ when you mean BED. “Also, be cautious of how you present these stories so they don’t fuel the misconceptions that BED is just being lazy, that we just need to eat better, or other fatphobic rhetoric that exists in our culture,” she adds. 

When journalists contribute to these stereotypes and assumptions, it’s not just men who may feel unable to ask for support, but anyone who isn’t a certain size or shape. We saw this play out in real time when model Tess Holliday tweeted that she had been diagnosed with anorexia. 

While support streamed in, so did the abuse. People accused her of lying and ridiculed her for being overweight. “The hate has been overwhelming,” Tess wrote in an Instagram caption a few days later. This toxic spew of accusations typifies the stereotype that only thin people can have eating disorders. 

Looking Beyond Sensationalism And The Most Severe Cases

Renee is sick of only seeing the most extreme cases in media (Image Credit: Renee McGregor)

Even when journalists are careful to avoid details on calories and weights, use responsible pictures, and tell a wide range of stories, it’s vital to also move past only reporting sensationalist versions of the most severe stories.

Chandni Sembhi felt the full force of stereotypes.

Renee McGregor is a leading Sports dietitian, specialising in eating disorders. She tells Journo Resources that she is frustrated by only seeing the “most severe cases; the deaths, the severely sick and underweight individuals.”

She continues: “I worry about the ones that are in the middle; the ones that are functioning with eating disorders. They’re not in critical care, so they’re not gonna be picked up by the NHS.  These individuals don’t always look how it’s presented in the media and that is problematic in itself because we’re creating this image of what a disorder looks like.”  

“I worry about the ones that are in the middle. We’re creating an image of what a disorder looks like.”

Renee McGregor

Chandni Sembhi, a 24-year-old content creator, felt the full force of this stereotype when she struggled with restrictive eating for a few months before getting help. “A few people dismissed my experience as not being a ‘real eating disorder’ because it was a short struggle.

“Having a wider range of stories in the press would help people realise that even though they didn’t end up in the hospital, their experience is still serious.” 

Chandni, who is of South Asian descent, also adds that seeing more media coverage of non-white people who have struggled and recovered from eating disorders would have been helpful. “I may have been less ashamed and been able to tell my family and get help sooner,” she added. 

Renee echoes this frustration. “There’s been a massive rise in eating disorders among ethnic minority groups, yet they don’t come forward. Why? Because what is promoted are white influencers and celebrities. Eating disorders do not discriminate. No one’s immune.”

“Having a wider range of stories in the press would help people realise that even though they didn’t end up in the hospital, their experience is still serious.”

Chandni Sembhi

Similarly, while reporting on successful recoveries can be encouraging, only promoting tidy narratives of complete recovery isn’t reflective of reality. At the same time, it may leave long-struggling survivors feeling like their experiences aren’t valid. 

Writer and marketer Francesca Baker has had anorexia since she was 18 – she’s 34 now. Recently, she was interviewed by a publication about starting a business that helps her manage her wellbeing. Speaking to Journo Resources she said: “I left my last agency job five years ago, dying and about to be sectioned. And the journalist wanted to know weights, calorie counts, my worst behaviours. I told her I had to end the interview if she was going to continue, pointed her to BEAT guidelines, and asked for a full read-through before publication.

“Today she emailed to say they’ve pulled the piece because I am not recovered so actually my story isn’t inspiring enough.”

While reporters and editors cannot tell every story of eating disorders in every story, relying on stories that all look the same or trying to make sources experiences fit tidy or sensationalised narratives is harmful. With just a little extra care, every journalist can play a pivotal role in ensuring that we move past these tired stereotypes, and serve the diverse communities in meaningful ways.

Tips For Reporting On Eating Disorders

• Use media guidelines as a baseline, but go further than them. Don’t mention calories, weights or specific eating disorder behaviours that are easy to copy,
• Do your research, read what other journalists are writing, and invest the time the story needs,
• Be specific, referring to ‘bulimia’, for example, is much more accurate than just saying ‘eating disorder’,
• Be purposeful with the sources you choose to speak to. They should reflect the diversity of experience, including people of colour, men, plus-size people, and those identifying as LGBTQ+,
• Treat your sources with empathy – they’re humans, not a walking eating disorder,
• Avoid sensationalism. Eating disorders can kill, but they aren’t a dramatic plot point for your next big story,
• Stay curious and question your biases and assumptions,
• Finally, ask if you’re the right person to tell the story and who it will be serving. If your answer doesn’t include health professionals or people who struggle with eating disorders and their loved ones, it could fall into the trap of sensationalism.