Westernization and Eating Disorders Globally

Posted on January 20, 2012

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Despite being a leading cause of death and disability worldwide, mental health is often neglected as a global health issue.  My friend Vivienne (a post-graduate psychology student with a research interest in eating disorders) recently told me about an interesting study that examined the impact of television on adolescent girls’ identity and body image in a rural community in Western Fiji.[1]  Robust bodies were traditionally considered aesthetically pleasing in Fiji, reflecting the capability for hard work, indexed care and nurturing from a dense social network.[2]  However, only three years after the introduction of television in Fiji, the study found an increase in weight and body shape preoccupation, purging behaviour to control weight and body disparagement  among schoolgirls.

Eating disorders were once considered a phenomenon unique to Western culture.  The Western ideal of thinness, perpetuated since the 1930’s[3]has come to symbolize ‘beauty, health, achievement and control’.[4]  In contrast, many non-Western societies traditionally favour fullness and associate it with positive attributes of ‘wealth, fertility and femininity’.  Commonly thought to be associated with wealth and affluence, eating disorders are now increasing in non-Western and even developing societies.

‘Westernization’ (e.g. increasing exposure to Western media) has been offered as an explanation for the global increase in eating disorders.  Western media sources are renowned for their glamorized portrayals of extremely thin women.  There is plenty of evidence to support that the media (e.g. television, magazines and advertisements) can negatively affect women’s body image and increase the rates of eating disorders.

(Airbrushed) Ralph Lauren Advertisment

Clearly, the cultural factors that have been implicated in eating disorders in the West are now emerging at a global level.  Putting mental illness such as eating disorders on the global health agenda is imperative for prevention and intervention strategies worldwide.  Fortunately, the issue of mental health and the “urgent need for a global strategy to address the global burden” has recently been raised by world experts such as Vikram Patel from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Judith Bass from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in the United States.[5]

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References

1.         Becker A. Television, disordered eating, and young women in Fiji: Negotiating body image and identity during rapid social change. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 2004;28:533-559.

2.         Becker A. Nurturing and negligence:Working on others’ bodies in Fiji. Csordas T, editor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1994.

3.         Miller MN, Pumariega AJ. Culture and eating disorders: A historical and cross-cultural review. Psychiatry. 2001;64(2):93-110.

4.         Nasser M. Eating disorders across cultures. Psychiatry. 2006;5(11).

5.         Bass JK, Bornemann TH, Burkey M, et al. A United Nations General Assembly special session for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders:  The time has come. PLoS Med. 2012;9(1):e1001159.

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