January 9th, 2024
When it comes to eating disorders, trying to find one explanation for why they occur is somewhat impossible. The fact is there are countless variables as to why a person could be diagnosed with one.
In this page, we unravel the connection between culture and eating disorders. From societal norms to personal struggles, we’ll journey through diverse perspectives, seeking a deeper understanding of eating disorders to promote empathy and effective solutions.
Image editing in the media
Ah Photoshop. A great invention, but wow, the ultimate catfish tool. Many pictures online and in magazines are edited to make bodies look perfect, and this makes it hard for people to feel good about their own bodies. Women’s health magazines, which should focus on real health, often show edited photos that set an unrealistic standard of beauty.
A study revealed that women’s health magazines in Western culture extensively emphasise themes of weight loss and the pursuit of an ‘ideal’ body. Out of 31 examined issues, 39 articles concentrated significantly on weight loss, with 14 providing detailed instructions on achieving the ‘ideal’ body. Consequently, the resulting headlines often highlight the success of a particular diet or fitness regimen, boasting about how it helped women lose a specific amount of weight. Notably, accompanying images are frequently edited and manipulated to present a more favourable portrayal of the diet’s effects than its actual impact.
This idea of a perfect body is not just in magazines but also on social media. People share carefully edited versions of their lives, especially in Instagram’s ‘healthy eating’ and ‘fitness’ communities. Research shows that this pursuit of an ideal lifestyle can lead to a condition called orthorexia, where people become obsessed with eating healthy to the point that it harms their mental and physical health.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but if we merge these things, it creates a big problem in society where everyone expects to have a “perfect body.” Constantly seeing edited images in magazines or on social media makes unrealistic beauty standards seem normal. This can lead to a culture that unintentionally promotes eating disorders, especially when people try to reach a near-impossible goal that’s been wrongly brandished in the media. The media needs to show a more real and diverse range of bodies to promote a healthier and more accepting view of beauty and well-being.
Ethnic myths surrounding eating disorders
Eating disorders can be obscured by pervasive myths, creating an atmosphere of stigma and misunderstanding.
In a 2022 interview with PBS, Tre Brown, who suffered from an eating disorder, shares how her community viewed her mental health issue.
Tre: It’s a stigma to have an eating disorder in my community. One of my cousins made the statement: “Black people don’t have eating disorders. That’s a white person disease. We know how to eat.”
Interviewer: When most people hear the phrase eating disorder, what do you think they picture? Who do they think of?
Tre: I think they picture a Caucasian female.
Interviewer: It’s a widespread stereotype.
Numerous studies viewed whether or not African American women were less likely to have eating disorders and showed some interesting and consistent findings. The studies show that although the eating disorder anorexia was the rarest amongst African American/Caribbean women, binge eating disorder was prevalent. When compared to white females, the study found that “binge eating disorder occurs with equal or greater frequency for African American and White women”.
So, how does this view affect culture and eating disorders?
Well, when we realise that eating disorders aren’t exclusive to a particular ethnicity or cultural background, it’s like pulling back the curtain on a stage play that reveals a much broader cast. The stereotype that only white women are affected can lead to a serious case of underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis among individuals from other racial backgrounds, and that’s a storyline we want to rewrite.
Then there are cultural factors. Different socio-economic conditions, beauty standards, and cultural ideals of body image can influence how eating disorders manifest themselves in various communities. Understanding these nuances will be effective for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of eating disorders in certain communities.
When the myths are busted, we realise that using a one-size-fits-all approach is never a suitable mantra for mental health services.
Gender myths surrounding eating disorders
It’s quite eye-opening to see how our understanding of eating disorders has evolved over time. It used to be thought that eating disorder struggles were primarily a female issue, but as we dig deeper, it’s becoming clear that males are more affected than we might have realised. In fact, recent evidence suggests that about 1 in 4 cases of bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa involve males.
Why is this?
While various factors cause eating disorders in males, one of the most significant reasons is the desire for the perfect body, i.e., gaining muscles. Some guys might find themselves going to extremes with strict diets or intense exercise routines, all in pursuit of that perfect muscular physique. And unfortunately, some even resort to appearance or performance-enhancing drugs, like anabolic steroids, to measure up to this ideal.
Seeking help for eating disorders can be a really tough journey, and it’s essential to recognise that both men and women face their own set of challenges in doing so. There’s this whole mix of factors like lack of insight, denial, shame, and secrecy that can make it difficult for anyone to reach out for support.
But for guys, it seems like there’s an added layer. The stigma attached to discussing mental health issues among men can be quite powerful, making it even more challenging to open up about something as personal as an eating disorder. Despite all the efforts to break these stereotypes, there’s still this lingering misconception that eating disorders are mainly a “female thing.”
This misperception might play a role in why some guys take longer to seek treatment. The hesitation and delay can be pretty significant, and it’s disheartening to learn that, in one study, 50% of male adolescents with eating disorders end up needing immediate hospitalisation when they finally do seek help.
Fat-shaming and fat-celebrating
In different cultures, fat shaming plays out in various ways; sometimes, it’s glaringly obvious, and other times, it’s those subtle, unspoken judgements that can cut just as deep. Regardless of how it manifests, it’s a serious issue with consequences that can’t be ignored.
When we realise the toll it takes on people’s mental and physical well-being, it becomes a deeply concerning trend. The impact on mental health alone is staggering, with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, anxiety and depression. For those who can’t muster the courage or energy to change their body weight, it can become a vicious cycle where they try so hard to meet these societal expectations but fail.
Now, let’s flip this idea entirely. Did you know there are some cultures and countries where fat is considered healthy, wealthy, and attractive?
In Mauritania, a recent ABC News report shed light on an intriguing cultural perspective where voluptuous women are considered both sexy and a symbol of wealth. Mothers in this region are said to go to great lengths to ensure their daughters gain weight, with force-feeding being a common practice referred to as “gavage,” similar to the process of fattening geese for foie gras.
However, the use of force-feeding raises concerns about the extremes some individuals undergo to meet societal expectations. It makes you pause and reflect on the lengths some are willing to go in pursuit of beauty ideals. The cultural pressure to conform to a specific body image, even through extreme measures like “gavage,” may lead to the development or exacerbation of eating disorders.
In Papua New Guinea, there’s a unique cultural perspective where being on the plumper side is socially acceptable and even viewed as a sign of good health. According to their traditions and cultural values, the perception is that fat individuals are healthier. It’s quite a departure from some other societies where there’s often an emphasis on being slim.
The acceptance and desire to be overweight may mask underlying health issues, as people might avoid seeking help due to the perceived social approval of their body size.
These contrasting cultural views highlight the potential dangers and complexities surrounding societal attitudes toward body image and health.
We really hope that our conversation today has shone a light on how culture can play a significant role in shaping eating disorders. There’s so much more to explore on this topic, and we regret not being able to cover all the facets in our discussion. But it’s our sincere hope that by touching on some parts of the link between culture and eating disorders, we’ve given you a bit more insight into just how complex and layered these reasons can be. There’s always more to learn, and we’re here to keep the conversation going.
Are you struggling with an eating disorder?
Are you or someone you know struggling with an eating disorder? It’s time to break free and embrace a healthier, happier life. UKAT is here to support you every step of the way.
When it comes to eating disorders, UKAT offers:
- Expert guidance
- Safe environments
- Accessible locations
- Holistic approach
Reclaim control and live a healthier, happier life. Our team of experts are ready and waiting for your call. Contact us today.
(Click here to see works cited)
- Ethan D, Basch CH, Hillyer GC, Berdnik A, Huynh M. “An analysis of weight loss articles and advertisements in mainstream women’s health and fitness magazines.” Health Promot Perspect. 2016 Jun 11;6(2):80-4. doi: 10.15171/hpp.2016.14. PMID: 27386422; PMCID: PMC4932226.
- “People of Color with Eating Disorders Face Cultural, Medical Stigmas.” YouTube, 28 Mar. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVwOlW1csiU&t=29s&ab_channel=PBSNewsHour. Accessed 22 Nov. 2023.
- Striegel-Moore RH, Wilfley DE, Pike KM, Dohm F, Fairburn CG. “Recurrent binge eating in Black American women.” Arch Fam Med. 2000;9:83–87.
- Hudson JI, Hiripi E, Pope HG, et al. “The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey replication.” Biol Psychiatry. 2007;61:349–58.
- Mitchison D, Mond JM. “Epidemiology of eating disorders, eating disordered behaviour, and body image disturbance in males: a narrative review.” J Eat Disord. 2015;3:20.
- Griffiths S, Mond JM, Murray SB, et al. “Young peoples’ stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs about anorexia nervosa and muscle dysmorphia.” Int J Eat Disord. 2014;47(2):189–95.
- Mauritania Tries to Reverse Obesity Tradition.” ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=4322187&page=1. Accessed 22 Nov. 2023.
- Osayomi, Tolulope. “‘Being Fat Is Not a Disease but a Sign of Good Living’: The Political Economy of Overweight and Obesity in Nigeria.” Ghana Journal of Geography, www.ajol.info/index.php/gjg/article/view/198019. Accessed 22 Nov. 2023.