Can an advertisement trigger an eating disorder? Reacting to concerns that it just may, General Mills has pulled a suddenly controversial Yoplait commercial off the air following complaints from the National Eating Disorders Association.
The commercial starts off with a thin woman standing in front of an open refrigerator, agonizing over a luscious-looking raspberry cheesecake.
"What if I just had a small slice? I was good today, I deserve it," she says. Maybe a bigger slice would be okay if she eats celery later—"they would cancel each other out, right?" she thinks. Or if she eats the cake while jogging in place?
That's when an even-skinnier coworker walks up, purrs, "Mmmm, raspberry cheesecake. I've been thinking about this all day!"—and takes a Yoplait Light cheesecake-flavored yogurt from the fridge. "Oh, you've... lost weight," the first woman notices. The confident coworker smiles, thanks her, and walks away with her Yoplait. The first woman, looking ashamed and guilty, grabs a yogurt instead.
Is the message that this yogurt tastes as good as cheesecake? That you should make healthy food choices at work? Or that, even if you're thin, you're still not thin enough?
For people coping with anorexia and bulimia, a commercial showing a thin person anxiously doing mental gymnastics in order to justify eating dessert—and then denying herself the treat because she wants to be even thinner—could reinforce the idea that such deliberations are healthy and normal, says Jenni Schaefer, an author and public speaker who has struggled with both anorexia and bulimia.
Taking the commercial off the air "is simply the right thing to do," Tom Forsythe, vice president of corporate communications for General Mills, said on Thursday. "Any correlation was certainly unintentional. But if even a few people could take from the ad that mis-impression, then the right thing to do was to pull the ad—and we have." (Because of the way television advertising is sold, the commercial could continue to air in some markets for a short time.)
Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the Seattle-based National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), is quick to say that her organization's issue was with the ad campaign and not with the product itself. In a public statement, she thanked Yoplait and General Mills for addressing concerns so quickly. "I believe the company had no intent to harm and gained insight into a very serious issue that we hope will influence their marketing decisions in the future," she said. She encouraged people who are worried about disordered eating to call NEDA's help-line at 1-800-931-2237.
But when she and others first saw the commercial, she told Yahoo! Shine on Thursday, what they saw wasn't a woman making a healthy food choice, but one who was caught up in a compensatory exchange about food. "This felt like a 20-second look at the mind of somebody with an eating disorder," she pointed out.
NEDA has already gotten some hate mail about their take on the ad, she said. "We're not encouraging Yoplait eaters to go eat cheesecake," Grefe clarified. "That's not our goal at all. The protest was because [the ad] really would tell somebody with an eating disorder that… society wants everybody to be thin."
"Eating disorders are characterized by denial," Schaefer, author of "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life," said in an interview. "There are a lot of people out there who are struggling but who don't know they're struggling." She began treatment for anorexia and bulimia when she was 22; now, at 35, she considers herself to be fully recovered.
In treatment programs, some people name their eating disorders—Ana (for anorexia), Mia (for bulimia) and Ed (for eating disorder) are all popular. "This commercial truly shows the voice of Ed in an accessible way," Schaefer said.
"It often starts with that voice in your head saying 'Eat this but not that'," she explained. "The commercial just reinforced that voice. It made that inner dialogue look normal, It let you think, 'I'm OK, I do the same thing.' But that's not normal. You don't have to open that refrigerator and hear that voice."
"It's a big spectrum from chronic dieting to any clinical eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia," said Schaefer. "Some people fall onto that spectrum and end up going all the way down to the end. Some people can stay in chronic dieting for their whole life, but I'd argue that it's not a happy place to live."
What we should all be striving for, Schaefer said, is balance. "Sometimes I worry that the fight against obesity is really scaring children," she said. "What I strive for today, with food and with exercise and body image, is balance." That means flexible, "intuitive" eating that allows you to assess your hunger and satisfy your cravings. "And there's no shame, there's no guilt attached to food. Food is just food," she said.
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