No discrimination here: eating disorders are spreading across nations and ethnicities

Author’s Note:  This is the final part of a four-part series on how eating disorders affect varying populations.

If you search for information on eating disorders, you will most likely find lots of information on the symptoms and demographics of these mental illnesses.  And you will probably find most of the research pointing to the desire to adhere to the “Western ideal” as one of the underlying factors causing them.  This is true.  However, what might not be the focus of most research is the fact that eating disorders are not only a “Caucasian, upper-middle class women’s” affliction:  they affect people of all socioeconomic classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders.  I have written posts in this series about other populations who are under-represented in the information gathered on eating disorders but who suffer all the same.  I would like to finish up the series with a reflection on the spread of eating disorders through numerous ethnic groups — both in Western countries and in non-Western countries.

The Western body ideal seems to be spreading across the world — and its unrelenting and often un-natural demands are coming with it.  To be “skinny, petite, and proportionally perfect” seems to mean that you are successful, wealthy, and in control (so says the ideal, which can often lead to the development of eating disorders).  Anorexia nervosa, most commonly, has been described as a “culture-bound” disorder whose roots are found in Western cultural values and conflicts.  Western values are spreading to even the most remote Fijian village, meaning that there are no boundaries with cultural standards anymore.  Where many non-Western cultural groups historically have found rounder, more plump bodies to be socially beautiful and acceptable, the Western ideal of thinness is taking over.

Some research that has been conducted on how eating disorders affect varying ethnic groups has found that advertisements are sending body-image messages to cultures which specifically target the bodily concerns that the group is most vulnerable to.  An interesting study that I came across was conducted by Dr. Ruth Striegel-Moore and focused on the myth that “black women are more immune to eating disorders because they’re less worried about having a larger body; that the large body is more socially acceptable in their culture.”  Through her study, Dr. Striegel-Moore found that black and white women tend to binge eat at the same rate – about 8% for each group.  Further, her study concluded that black and white women tend to develop full-blown eating disorders at the same rate, however it seems to be more socially acceptable for white women to seek treatment for it.

Latino cultures are also affected by the Western ideal.  Not only are they influenced by the “wealthy and thin” ideal that is often presented to them in the media, but Latina women are increasingly being featured on television shows and in movies.  This is a positive trend for promoting cultural variability in the media.  However, the Latina and black role models on television are often thin and beautiful as well – thus promoting the “need to be thin and beautiful like them” that spreads across cultures.

People who immigrate to the United States from other countries are often faced with the challenge (and often intense desire) to assimilate to the dominant culture’s standards.  They want to be accepted and successful and to live their dreams.  This often comes with the price tag of needing to be attractive in order to be successful (so the American dream tells us).  Women and men can begin to try to change how they look, especially in their bodies, to fit in to this ideal and compete with their Western counterparts.  In non-Western countries, American television shows, music, and advertisements are spreading.  This media overload can introduce concepts that these cultures had not been exposed to before, and the newness and excitement of Western culture can influence people of all backgrounds to conform to its standards.

There are many wonderful things about Western culture and the opportunities it can offer.  But it also can create a standard for appearance and an expectation of how we should act, think, and look that can be incredibly confining and damaging.  This is a topic that deserves much more research and attention, and as eating disorders continue to grow and spread, I hope that multicultural populations are offered the same intervention and treatment as all other groups.  This is one area where there appears to be litle discrimination – eating disorders affect all types of people and we must be aware of the messages that contribute to their development and the havoc they can wreak on lives.

It is slightly ironic how eating disorders tend to thrive on “black and white, or dualistic thinking”, however they are spreading into the grey area and affecting populations of all skin colors….