‘Am I anorexic?’ Weight, eating and discourses of the body in online adolescent health communication


  • Louise Mullany School of English University of Nottingham
  • Catherine Smith University of Birmingham
  • Kevin Harvey University of Nottingham
  • Svenja Adolphs School of English University of Nottingham




corpus linguistics, discourses of the body, eating disorders, electronic discourse, sociolinguistics


This article explores the communicative choices of adolescents seeking advice from an internet-based health forum run by medical professionals. Techniques from the disciplines of sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics are integrated to examine the strategies used in adolescents’ health questions. We focus on the emergent theme of Weight and Eating, a concern which features prominently in adolescents’ requests to medical practitioners. The majority of advice requests are authored by adolescent girls, with queries peaking at age 12. A combined quantitative and qualitative analysis provides detailed insights into adolescents’ communicative strategies. Examinations of question types, register and a discourse-based analysis draw attention to dominant discourses of the body, including a ‘discourse of slenderness’ and a ‘discourse of normality’, which exercise negative influences on adolescents’ dietary behaviours. The findings are of applied linguistic relevance to health practitioners and educators, as they provide them with access to adolescents’ health queries in their own language.

Author Biographies

Louise Mullany, School of English University of Nottingham

Louise Mullany is associate Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Nottingham. She has published widely in the area of professional communication and her research primarily focuses on health and business settings.

Catherine Smith, University of Birmingham

Catherine Smith is a research Fellow and technical Officer at the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE) at the university of Birmingham. She was previously a Research Fellow in corpus linguistics at the University of Nottingham.

Kevin Harvey, University of Nottingham

Kevin Harvey is Lecturer in Sociolinguistics at the University of Nottingham. his particular research interest is in the field of health communication from a corpus-linguistic and discourse-based approach.

Svenja Adolphs, School of English University of Nottingham

Svenja Adolphs is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests are in the areas of health communication, corpus linguistics, pragmatics and discourse analysis.


Adolphs, S., Mullany, L., Harvey, K. and Smith, C. (2012) Am I Normal? What Adolescents Want to Know About Health. Health Education Booklet. Nottingham: University of Nottingham.

Appignanesi, L. (2008) Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind: Doctors from 1800 to the Present. London: Virago Press.

Baker, P. (2010) Corpus Linguistics and Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Banyard, K. (2010) The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today. London: Faber.

Baron, N. (2000) Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where it’s Heading. London: Routledge. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780203194317

Bond, E (2012) Virtually anorexic: Where’s the harm?: A research study on the risks of pro-anorexia web­sites. Retrieved from: www.ucs.ac.uk/virtuallyanorexic

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London: Routledge.

Charteris-Black, J. and Seale, C. (2010) The Language of Gender and Illness. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/9780230281660

Cotton, S. and Gupta, S. (2004) Characteristics of online and offline health information seekers and factors that discriminate between them. Social Science and Medicine 59 (9): 1795–1806. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.02.020

Coupland, J. and Gwyn, R. (eds) (2003) Discourse, the Body and Identity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave.

Department of Health (2008) Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives: A Cross-Government Strategy for England. London: Department of Health.

Eckert, P. (2000) Linguistic Variation as Social Practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavistock Publications.

Fox, C. and Farrow, C. (2009) Global and physical self-esteem and body dissatisfaction as mediators of the relationship between weight status and being a victim of bullying. Journal of Adolescence 32 (5): 1287–1301. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2008.12.006

Fox, N., Ward, K. and O’Rourke, A. (2005) Pro-anorexia, weight-loss drugs and the internet: An ‘anti-recovery’ explanatory model of anorexia. Sociology of Health and Illness 27 (7): 944–971. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2005.00465.x

Groesz, L., Levin, M. and Murnen, S. (2002) The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders 31 (1): 1–16. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/eat.10005

Harris, E. (2010) Diet, Nutrition and Eating Behaviours. AYPH Research Update. London: Association of Young Person’s Health.

Harvey, K. (2013) Investigating Adolescent Health Communication. London: Bloomsbury.

Harvey, K., Churchill, D., Crawford, P., Brown, B., Mullany, L., Macfarlane, A. and McPherson, A. (2008) Health communication and adolescents: What do their emails tell us? Family Practice 25 (4): 304–311. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/fampra/cmn029

Jeffries, L. (2007) Textual Construction of the Female Body. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/9780230593626

Jutel, A. (2006) The emergence of overweight as a disease entity: Measuring up normality. Social Science and Medicine 63 (9): 2268–2276. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.05.028

Locher, M. (2006) Advice Online. Amsterdam: Benjamins. http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/pbns.149

Lupton, D. (2003) Medicine as Culture. Second edition. London: Sage.

Lupton, D. (2013) Fat. London: Routledge.

McEnery, A., Xiao, R. and Tono, Y. (2006) Corpus-Based Language Studies. London: Routledge.

McPherson A. (2005) ABC of Adolescence: Adolescents in primary care. British Medical Journal 330 (7489): 465–467. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.330.7489.465

Miah, A. and Rich, E. (2008) The Medicalisation of Cyberspace. London: Routledge.

Morrow, P. R. (2006) Telling about problems and giving advice in an Internet discussion forum: Some discourse features. Discourse Studies 8 (4): 531–548. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461445606061876

Mullany, L. (2007) Gendered Discourse in the Professional Workplace. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/9780230592902

Neumark-Sztainer, D. and Hannan, P. J. (2000) Weight-related behaviors among adolescent girls and boys. Archive of Paediatric Adolescent Medicine 154 (6): 569–577. http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/archpedi.154.6.569

Rich, E. (2006) Anorexic dis(connection): Managing anorexia as an illness and identity. Sociology of Health and Illness 28 (3): 284–305. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2006.00493.x

Rogers, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2005) A Sociology of Mental Health and Illness. Third edition. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Scott, M. (2008) WordSmith Tools Version 5. Liverpool, UK: Lexical Analysis Software.

Seale, C., Ziebland, S. and Charteris-Black, J. (2007) Gender, cancer experience and internet use: A comparative keyword analysis of interviews and online cancer support groups. Social Science & Medicine 62 (10): 2577–2590. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.11.016

Smith, C., Adolphs, S., Harvey, K. and Mullany, L. (2014) Spelling errors and keywords in born-digital data: A case study using the Teenage Health Freak Corpus. Corpora 9 (2): 137–154. http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/cor.2014.0055

Suzuki, L., and Calzo, J. (2004) The search for peer advice in cyberspace: An examination of online teen bulletin boards about health and sexuality. Applied Developmental Psychology 25 (6): 685–698. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2004.09.002

Suler, J. (2004) The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology and Behavior 7 (3): 321–326. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/1094931041291295

Treasure, J., Claudino, A. and Zucker, N. (2010) Eating disorders, The Lancet 375 (9714): 583–593. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61748-7



How to Cite

Mullany, L., Smith, C., Harvey, K., & Adolphs, S. (2016). ‘Am I anorexic?’ Weight, eating and discourses of the body in online adolescent health communication. Communication and Medicine, 12(2-3), 211–223. https://doi.org/10.1558/cam.16692