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Empowerment Is Not For Sale

Photo by Aunt Mona

One in 5 women suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. And if you think of an eating disorder as any kind of disordered attitude toward eating, it’s probably closer to 4 out of 5. The NEDA reports that as many as “10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.”

I care deeply about this issue because I was one of those statistics.

During high school and college I had a very unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. I felt that being “thin” was the only way I’d be accepted by society or find a life partner who loved me. My eating disorder was caused by a variety of issues and life experiences.

Life experience is shaped by many factors including parents, teachers, peers, and the mass media. The media, and in particular advertising, targets its audience’s fears and insecurities, offering its advice or products as the only remedy.

Consciously or subconsciously we are shaped by advertising. And that’s not surprising, considering that the average American is exposed to 3,000 ads everyday. A lot of these ads present unrealistic images of what women and men “should” look like in our culture.Β  For instance, have you ever looked through a magazine or watched a television show and had one of these thoughts pop into you head?

I’m too fat.

I wish I looked like that.

I’m not good enough.

Jean Kilbourne has studied the correlation between public health problems and advertising for years. She argues that advertising doesn’t necessarily cause violence against women, eating disorders, or addictions, but fosters a culture in which we increasingly devalue and objectify women, men, and children.

If you’re not convinced, take 5 minutes and watch this presentation:

In a world that constantly tells us that we’re not good enough, it’s essential to take care of your body and mind. Below are a few strategies I use to stay healthy.

Seek support.

If you’re feeling depressed, seek support from a counselor, friends, family members, and teachers. For instance, in college I started taking feminist theory classes and developed a huge community of peers. The conversations I had with these new friends changed the way I viewed my body and culture.

Start writing.

Writing is cathartic. Writing helps me get out the kinks and wrinkles in my brain and stop worrying so much. And as cheesy as this sounds writing is a great way to work on positive self talk and work through frustrations you see in the everyday world.

Consider starting a journal.

View all media with a critical eye.

It’s crucial to remember that media messages and images are constructed. The goal of advertising is to get you to buy products. Advertisers create messages based on what they think you want. You can counteract these messages by choosing the type of media you view. For instance, I go for long walks, read books, and do yoga, rather than watching television or picking up the latest fashion magazine.

Help promote healthier body images in the media.

Discuss advertising images you see with friends and family members, write letters to offending companies, and avoid buying products by companies that consistently send out negative messages.

Love yourself.

In our culture you can buy anything you want, but empowerment is not for sale. You can try to buy your identity, shape your body through plastic surgery or the latest diet, but those behaviors won’t bring you happiness.

Happiness comes from loving yourself.


Eating disorders are potentially life threatening illness. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder help is available.

Photograph by Aunt Mona.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jane October 4, 2010, 11:17 am

    Just signed up for 750 words, thanks! I had heard you reference it but didn’t know it was a site you sign up for. Do you have any tips about how to use it effectively, make yourself do it, what to write? Do you usually just write what you’re thinking about?

    • Tammy October 4, 2010, 11:21 am

      Hey Jane – 750 words rocks. I usually just write what I’m thinking about at the moment or use it to write about post topics…. Normally, I use it first thing in the morning. It’s helps me clear my thoughts and get my writing groove on. πŸ™‚ They also have a blog — http://enjoymentland.com/category/projects/750-words/

      • Jane October 4, 2010, 11:39 am

        Thanks Tammy! I’m going to try it out and see!

  • Cheryl Breuer October 4, 2010, 11:51 am

    Great post, Tammy. I’m glad you were able to overcome your eating disorder. Too many of my female friends hate their bodies, and spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to achieve and impossible ideal. I actually posted about something similar on my blog not that long ago. Take a look if you are interested. http://peculiar-girl.com/?p=60

  • DJ October 4, 2010, 12:05 pm

    My teenage girls are so aware of this issue, and it slays me that they need to be so alert and on guard. And even being alert and aware, it’s still hard for them.

    And, of course, eating disorders can run to the other side of the spectrum, with overeating for comfort and solace being a terrible problem for many.

    • Sunny October 4, 2010, 6:33 pm

      Thanks for including the issue on the other side of the spectrum…I deal with this and it’s no picnic either.

      • Dawn October 5, 2010, 8:22 am

        I agree with Sunny. Thank you for mentioning this. So many people in this world (namely the US for this purpose) overeat out of comfort and solace then become depressed when they see the ads and shows that portray men and women as having to have specific body images which then leads into the cycle again because they eat for comfort and solace. I, too, deal with this. I think the hardest part is when people think that overweight (plus size or super size) people are at fault for their own way of life when, although true to an extent, others don’t realize that it is exactly the kind of judgement they are putting off that tends to perpetuate the cycle. I’m not sure if I’m making sense right now because I have “baby brain” but I hope I am.

    • Jeannie October 4, 2010, 7:30 pm

      I bet it’s especially hard as that’s when their bodies are making many changes, year-to-year in flux so they’re having to struggle with that awkward growth period. I certainly remember that (being 23), and I think it’s reassuring when I’ve told young girls that their bodies really don’t stop adjusting until 20’s…mine certainly did not get stable in terms of health until now!! But until then, ya, that’s great that they’re alert and media smart πŸ™‚

  • EL October 4, 2010, 12:06 pm

    Kudos Tammy for being able to share this with the readers. I know how hard it is to confess a major mental struggle and how freeing it is to be able to share and help other ladies.

    I grew up with two sisters and the ammount of pressure they STILL feel to have that perfect figure is overwhelming. I’ve suggested to them to stop reading the glam magazines and watching so much tv, hopefully they can come to a realization that they are good enough, just the way they are.

  • Yuliya October 4, 2010, 12:06 pm

    Here is a pretty great resource to combat negativity in the media http://www.about-face.org/

    • EL October 4, 2010, 12:39 pm

      Yuliya- that is a great site you posted! I’ll have to share that with my familia!

  • Dena October 4, 2010, 12:41 pm

    Tammy thank you so much for posting this, and espeically for including the video. Since I “know” that the media portrays women as impossibly beautiful sexual objects, I don’t bother to feel indignant about it – and that’s wrong. I’m realizing that passive acceptance is as good as not knowing it’s happening at all. I’m going to make a point of being actively aware of the messages I’m seeing in order to further train my brain to fight them off!

  • Frugal Vegan Mom October 4, 2010, 12:46 pm

    Thanks for this Tammy. I wish all women were aware and trying to combat this.

    Despite feeling really messed up because of disordered eating myself for years, I don’t even have any advice. I seem to have just sort of grown out of it, but it’s never completely gone. For no particular reason I also slowly just lost my taste for most shopping, looking at fashion mags, etc. Not to say I don’t enjoy feeling cute sometimes, but comfort is more of a priority.

    One of the things that helps most is I always consider the people I love and most enjoy being around and think “do I love them at all because of how much they weigh or how they dress? No! I would never give it a thought. ” and I know that relationships are key to my happiness, why would I think obsessing over my appearance would make ME any more pleasant to be around? Probably quite the opposite…

    I will have to give this a lot of thought in the upcoming years – I found out on Friday I am having a girl!

  • Nicole October 4, 2010, 1:05 pm

    Thank you Tammy for including Jean Kilbourne. She’s a real inspiration. I saw her presentation in Ann Arbor and it had a profound impact on me. I am an eating disorder specialist, and would like to share this post with my clients, if that’s okay.
    Please continue your good work!

    Nicole Christina, Syracuse, NY

    • Tammy October 4, 2010, 1:41 pm

      Thank you Nicole! Feel free to share the post. πŸ™‚

  • nicole October 4, 2010, 7:09 pm

    After seeing their ads, I made a conscious effort never to buy from American Apparel. Their ads seem to be selling prostitution, victimization of women, and some even lean towards child pornography. I’m embarrassed and appalled that one of so few American clothing manufacturers resorts to such advertising tactics. I don’t know what is worse, buying clothes from Chinese (and other) factories where workers get paid nothing and conditions are foul, or buying from an American company that promotes the victimization of young women.

    I usually just buy from the thrift store and avoid the moral dilemma.

  • Jeannie October 4, 2010, 7:33 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story, and for posting that awesome presentation. She delivers her message clearly and not angrily, but very matter-of-factly, which I like (being someone who gets really worked up over women’s image in media GRR). She pulls up great examples, too. Thank you for writing, Tammy!! It means a lot to how mindful I’ve become πŸ™‚

  • Katie October 4, 2010, 7:47 pm

    Hey Tammy! Excellent post. I think it takes a long time for a woman to accept herself because we are so conditioned to want to be someone other than ourselves. Sadly, many women never do accept themselves which is really doing them and their families a disservice from experiencing true joy in one’s life. It’s sad, but it’s important to realize that there is no better time to accept yourself for who you are than today. Thanks for sharing your story – your 4/5 stat is probably pretty accurate.

  • Spencer October 5, 2010, 12:43 am

    great video and very very true.

  • Understanding Alice October 5, 2010, 1:38 am

    what an important issue this is – congratulations on a good article on ths subject!!

  • Tiffany October 5, 2010, 7:44 am

    love this post. i struggled with bulimia for years. it never goes away. and your body/looks will never be good enough for the industry standard. i have gotten to the point that advertising disgusts me. it is such a part of our psyche from a young age that we don’t even realize that the goal of advertising is to create a need in individuals, most typically a feeling of deficit, or being flawed…and guess what can fill that need? the advertised product!

    the way that women and young girls are portrayed in the media is disgusting. They are not individuals, they are body parts. It is sad to see that men are now starting to be sold the same way.

    thanks for sharing! i’m hoping that women will start to stand up to these images and promote REAL beauty.

  • Lisa October 5, 2010, 9:24 am

    Great topic! I agree that advertising and society has a lot to do with the way we judge ourselves. We’re our own harshest critics usually. In my opinion this can create an atmosphere of discontent that may manifest itself in extremes….whether it’s over eating, starving oneself, becoming bulimic, exercising too much or too little. The true problem isn’t with the food or the exercise. It’s with our perception of ourselves. Love and acceptance is the greatest gift that we can give ourselves. Working towards being as healthy as possible is more important than what size of clothing we buy.

  • Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate October 5, 2010, 10:32 am

    My current annoyance is the idea that we’re all supposed to have sparkling white teeth. Not that I want yellowed teeth, but surely there’s a happy medium.

    How healthy is it to have bleaching chemicals in our mouths?!

    -Katy Wolk-Stanley
    “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

  • Katie October 5, 2010, 10:54 am

    I was watching the video and my 17 year old peeked over my shoulder to ask what it was. I told her and she proceeded to rant about this girl she knows who is perfect. “I wish she could know what it’s like to not be perfect.” I told her that this girl was perfect, but so was she and so was I. She huffed and walked off. I tried. Great article Tammy and so much food for thought.

  • Casey Friday October 5, 2010, 11:01 am

    It’s a tough, critical world out there, and reading this is a refreshing reminder of the obstacles we’re up against. Thanks, Tammy.

  • Jen October 5, 2010, 12:41 pm

    I think you look fabulous!!! Happy and healthy!! It is so shocking to me because alot of people I know who have or are struggling with unhealthy relationships with food are the people who you would never suspect, half the time its the people I myself wish I looked like. Its true though happyness starts with loving yourself for who you are. Advertisement is scary and most of those pictures have been doctored. The models are already frighteningly thin and then they airbrush the pictures. Whats even scarier is that there are several websites out there that advocate eating disorders pushing it as a healthy lifestyle choice. Beware and educate your kids especially daughters on the dangers of this!!

  • Meg October 5, 2010, 1:23 pm

    This is an issue dear to my heart, after a lifetime of witnessing women contorting themselves to fit into the latest standard of beauty. Marketers create markets by presenting new things to desire, whether it is a car or a dress or a human physique. In the 60’s Sean Connery’s James Bond was considered pretty hot (hairy barrel chest and all)–but then came the waxed Sylvester Stallone of Rocky. Guys didn’t seem overly bothered if they didn’t look like Connery or Stallone, though. Twiggy was THE look for me and my peers, flat-chested, flat everything, and then some of those peers had enhancements done to fill out their Vicky’s Secret bras in the 90’s (old bats having a last hurrah). My dear mother has finally stopped dyeing her hair after 50 years; she still perms what’s left of it. My parents freaked when I stopped trying to cover up my own grey, they didn’t want a daughter looking as old as I actually was.

    Conformity is a touchy thing. Will the world ever universally conform to rejecting manipulative advertising? Will we ever have that level of collective cultural wisdom?

  • Beth October 5, 2010, 2:06 pm

    First let me also say that I am so happy Tammy that you have been able to overcome an eating disorder. Thank you for posting on this topic. I also must say that it saddens and angers me when I watch that video. When will this ever stop? I have fought these harmful attitudes my whole life it seems, and from reading these responses I see that I am not the only one. Finally at 55 I feel that I am free! I no longer watch the ads on TV or even have a television. My hair is silver and I’ve opted out of trying to be someone I am not. I know how difficult this can be. Meg–congratulations on letting your silver show!

    • Meg October 5, 2010, 3:32 pm

      Hey, fellow Silver Girl! I’m 55 too πŸ˜€

  • Heather October 5, 2010, 3:32 pm

    Thank you for the link to 750words. I read this post last night after feeling very unempowered, and venting through writing was such a wonderful way to regain my perspective. You rock Tammy!

  • Tammy October 5, 2010, 3:38 pm

    Thank you all for the supportive and thoughtful comments! Writing this post was really difficult. All the encouragement means a lot to me. πŸ™‚ Thanks a million!

  • Amy October 5, 2010, 5:06 pm

    Hi Tammy,

    First I want to say I love your site. This is one of the few blogs I return to on a weekly basis, and you’ve helped me straighten a lot of areas of my life out. So thanks πŸ™‚

    I never felt a need to comment before, but I want to say I am pleased to see something like this being discussed with such care. I have struggled with an eating disorder for eighteen years now, and a crucial point in my own process of recovery was cultivating a deeper understanding of the external forces behind my illness, as well as the internal. Advertising’s sole purpose is to sell you something at any cost. When I chose not to participate in that game anymore, I made huge strides in becoming okay with my own body.

    I fear for what young women and even girls face today, as advertising seems more obnoxious now than what I dealt with as a teen, and the ramifications of that exposure reach beyond body image and into sexual health and safety. I feel sad when I see little girls of 7 or 8 wearing miniskirts and halter tops, or carrying around Bratz dolls (with their over-sexualized yet child-like features and scrawny bodies). Those subliminal messages carry a lot more weight that I think we give them credit for — and when our culture accepts these things, we endanger children emotionally and physically.

  • Ibai Aramburuzabala Arrieta October 6, 2010, 1:50 am

    Tammy, I think this is one of the best articles you’ve ever written. Trully personal and touching. Furthermore, you take a ‘down-to-earth’ approach on empowerment, putting aside the more political connotation of the term.

  • Liz @ Creative Liberty October 6, 2010, 6:34 am

    Powerful post. I had my own issues with body image in high school, so I can definitely relate. And I really liked the way you tied this issue to your overall minimalist/simplicity style of living.

    And as a member of the media, I can definitely attest to its role in fueling this problem.

  • Laurie October 6, 2010, 6:39 am

    Thanks Tammy, I really needed those words today. I’ve never had an eating disorder, but often struggle with self-esteem, and am making a greater effort to see the beauty in myself just as I am, right now. I appreciate your honesty!
    Laurie in Michigan

  • Crystle October 6, 2010, 10:10 am

    Hi Tammy!

    Love the site! Your articles have helped me get “unstuck.” Your message on simplicity has greatly changed the trajectory of my life. Liberation, absolute liberation.

    This article in particular hits home since I struggled with an ED for 5 years, during college and after. I was hoping you’d write a bit more about motivation as a means to empowerment. How do you stay motivated?

    I like the bigger picture concept, that’s a tool I try to utilize when I feel off balance. I try to remember that everyone is fighting a hard battle (thx Plato), so be kind.

    Also, how are the five finger shoes for running? Very curious!


    • Tammy October 6, 2010, 4:58 pm

      @Crystle – Ohhh that’s a tough question. I’ll have to write an in-depth blog post on that topic next week. In short, I surround myself with positive people, do a lot of writing, reading, and yoga.

      I’m still in love with my five fingers. Although, I’m not running much anymore. My knees have been killing me. So my focus has been on yoga, walking, and biking. πŸ™‚

  • Jen Gresham October 7, 2010, 6:40 am

    Did you know that a large portion of the Air Force fitness test is a waist measurement? So no matter how many push-ups or sit-ups you can do, no matter how fast you can run, if your waist isn’t a certain size, you’re not considered fit. Oh, and the waist size requirements don’t change with age. At 50 you are expected to have the same size waist as you did at 18.

    The messages are truly everywhere.

  • Catherine Chandler October 7, 2010, 6:47 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and to help spread the word about the seriousness of these issues. I have started reading “The Four Day Win” by Martha Beck and love the encouragement it gives to love and accept our bodies and our emotional selves.

  • Peta October 10, 2010, 5:02 pm

    There are beautiful people out there, and whether the media shows them to us or not, we’ll see them in our daily lives.

    Many have tried to make me feel better by arguing that media portrayals of women are fake (computer generated & airbrushed etc). The trouble is, I have seen & known well, people who have what look like airbrushed features, but they are real and standing in front of me…nothing fake, except maybe a little makeup!!

    We all want to feel valued and loved, and when someone gets more attention or opportunities where you can’t, it is absolutely horrible.

    My guess is that this issue has been around for centuries though, well before the media came into being. It is a human issue, not a media one. Sure the media intensifies the problem, but the problem is there anyway. And by boycotting the media when it exacerbates the problem is probably a good idea. But the blame game doesn’t really provide me with much relief.

    I feel that we need a better solution to this problem…and I am sure there is one… but focusing on blaming the media I don’t think is that helpful.

    I still have the same body at the end of the day. What do I do about that?

  • HUMBERTO MALINCOVICH June 22, 2011, 10:06 am

    excellent article!!!

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