In her new book, “Body Shots: Hol­ly­wood and the Cul­ture of Eating Dis­order,” Emily Fox-​​Kales, an instructor in North­eastern University’s cinema studies pro­gram, argues that pop­ular cul­ture — espe­cially movies — pro­motes unhealthy body images that cause an audi­ence to alter their behavior in a way that could become harmful.

What fac­tors from pop­ular cul­ture affect what you refer to as “dis­torted eating” and an obses­sion about body image, par­tic­u­larly among younger Americans? 

This doesn’t come out of the blue. We get a lot of mes­sages from main­stream cul­ture that are cir­cu­lated by pop­ular media, like tele­vi­sion, the Internet, mag­a­zines, and very much through movies. Movies have a par­tic­u­larly potent affect on viewer in part due to the “spec­tac­ular” nature of their visual imagery. Cul­tural ideals of beauty, fem­i­ninity, and mas­culinity are embodied by  the larger-​​than-​​life images of stars like Gwenyth Pal­trow and Brad Pitt . Because they rep­re­sent the values that we all want – suc­cess, money, being sexy, being desir­able – we estab­lish an ideal for our own bodies based on a process called screen iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. And the larger that gap between what we see when we look at them and what we see when we look in the mirror, the more we vul­ner­able to body dis­sat­is­fac­tion, a key risk factor for the devel­op­ment of eating dis­or­ders which could begin with the vow to skip break­fast or lunch to deciding to work out for four hours every day.

What impact do today’s movies have on viewers and what can someone do to avoid leaving a movie with neg­a­tive body images?

Not only do movies have an effect on viewers’ per­cep­tions of beauty, they actu­ally have an impact on what they think of them­selves, which is chilling. This was con­cerning to me and it’s impor­tant to anyone who treats eating dis­or­ders, so in the book I teach easy ways the viewer can decon­struct a movie. You can figure out what the movie is trying to make you want and then you can figure out how to be savvier about your reac­tion to it. That way you can still enjoy the movie without that toxic after-​​effect. You can ask your­self how you felt before the movie started and how you felt after­ward, and if you start to feel your body image has gone from a ten to a two, you’re more likely to leave that movie with a vow or an action plan that may be self-​​destructive.

What needs to change in the enter­tain­ment industry so that Hol­ly­wood films pro­mote pos­i­tive body images?

Hol­ly­wood has always been a dream fac­tory, where every­thing is pretty and sexy and glam­orous — that’s what we’ve always wanted to con­sume. You have to look out­side the main­stream, to what we call art-​​house films, to find movies that might have a pro­tag­o­nist who is still depicted as beau­tiful, but who might be a large woman or a Latino woman who shows she doesn’t have to be five-​​ten, 110 pounds and look like she just stepped out of Vogue mag­a­zine. But the eco­nomics of Hol­ly­wood are such that you want to reach the most people with a uni­form image that appeals to a broad audi­ence. You want the movie to have a global appeal. What would have to change would be the way that the enter­tain­ment industry does busi­ness — moving away from almost car­toon­like car­i­ca­tures of strength and beauty — to films with a more diverse look to them. It’s hap­pening slowly at the mar­gins, but is not some­thing that has really entered the mainstream.