EDITORIAL: Drunkorexia: the newest source of moral panic

“Drunkorexia,” a term coined by the media to describe habitually starving oneself or vomiting to offset the calories ingested by drinking, has been pounced on by mainstream media outlets such as The Today Show and the New York Times as yet another symptom of today’s troubled youth.

This newest epidemic is a prime example of the media creating a topic and then sensationalizing it to attract an audience via moral panic. Recall other so-called social ills conjured by the media in recent years, like the infamous “rainbow party” scare. Media outlets across the nation warned of parties in which young women would supposedly apply different colored lipsticks and shamelessly perform oral sex on various males, who competed to rack up as many colors as possible.

As it turned out, the allegedly widespread rainbow parties were a lot of hype without a lot of substance. In 2004, an NBC-People survey revealed that only 12 percent of girls aged 13 to 16 had performed oral sex, and a scant 4 percent of those had attended an oral sex party. Deborah Tolman, director of the San Francisco State University Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, said the rainbow party “phenomenon” created by the media displayed “all the classic signs of moral panic … despite any actual evidence.”

What these topics have in common is that they were touted by the media as indicators of the recklessness and danger that supposedly define contemporary youth – specifically girls – with no scientific or statistical bases.

The troubled youth subtext of these media-created urban myths is used to lure readers and viewers. It appeals to the basic fear that children and young adults are running rampant and being tarnished by the lurid elements surrounding them that threaten to corrupt – or, fear of fears, even dissolve – traditional American family values.

The media capitalizes on this fear by advertising the problems as pervasive and hidden – parents, it could be happening right under your noses! – and inciting moral panic in the audience. Catchy little buzzwords for the problems are even created so that news outlets can refer to the epidemics in future stories.

In the 24-hour news culture that characterizes much of the mainstream media, there is no such thing as an absurd or superfluous story. However, the bottom line is that drunkorexia is simply a media play-on-words to describe a pre-existing relationship.

Eating disorders and binge drinking/alcoholism both involve behaviors that are often used as coping mechanisms. It is no surprise that someone who is coping with an eating disorder would be driven to numb his or her pain or anxiety with a substance such as alcohol. It is similarly unsurprising that an alcoholic or habitual binge drinker would have other self-destructive behaviors, such as eating disorders.

Such behaviors have always been linked, long before the media decided to exploit them, assign a cute nickname to the combination and tout it as a “new” danger. In fact, sensationalizing “drunkorexia” as an emergent social ill detracts from the attention that should be paid to the diseases in which it is rooted – anorexia, bulimia and alcoholism.