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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Essay on Eating Disorder and Diversity

            A multitude of factors may exert influence on a person’s dietary patterns and eating behavior.  This may include social, cultural and even economic factors.  Of all these factors, the impact of culture on eating behavior and eating disorder has been the subject of many studies.  The theory is that culture is one of the more important factors that affect a person’s eating behavior and even eating disorder.  Research, however, is scarce on just how culture impacts a person’s eating behavior.  This essay seeks to examine the impact of culture in the development of eating disorder.  The objective is to prove that while cultural groups are susceptible to developing eating disorders, there are cultural groups which share similar values and attitudes that give them certain degree of protection against eating disorders.

Traditional Understanding of Eating Behavior and Development of Eating Disorder
            Traditionally, eating behavior, body image perceptions eating disorders were believed to exist exclusively as part of the Western culture, particularly among white upper class women (Bridgette Sloan, p.3).  Since Western culture values thinness in body appearance, dieting has become a $50 billion industry in the United States.  Companies advertising their products have used thinness as a symbolism for self-discipline, control, sexual liberation, assertiveness, competitiveness and even relationship with the social elite.  As a result of this preoccupation with thinness, dieting and in extreme cases, eating disorders have become the norm and a socially accepted behavior in the West. 
            Since eating disorder is common in Western countries, most research were focused on white women and treatment was also exclusive for white women.  To a certain extent, the susceptibility to eating disorders of people other than those in Western countries has not been given much attention (Kathy Bunch, 2001, p.1).  Many people think that African-Americans, Latinos, or Asians are not susceptible to eating disorder.  
            Recently, however, some researchers argue that eating behavior and eating disorder are not problems exclusive to any particular culture.  In fact, there are findings which say that different cultural groups and ethnic minorities residing in the United States exhibit a pattern of eating behavior and eating disorder.  These researchers have realized that disturbed eating behaviors and attitudes are not restricted to white middle class women but even to ethnic minorities in the United States.  According to recent epidemiological studies, obesity is now becoming more common among African-American and Latina women than white women (Lisa Sanchez-Johnsen, Maureen Dymek and John Alverdy, 2003, p.1).  Others conclude that boys and girls of all ethnic groups are susceptible to eating disorders, to wit:
Girls and boys from all ethnic and racial groups may suffer from eating disorders and disordered eating. The specific nature of the most common eating problems, as well as risk and protective factors, may vary from group to group but no population is exempt. Research findings regarding prevalence rates and specific types of problems among particular groups are limited, but it is evident that disturbed eating behaviors and attitudes occur across all cultures. (“At Risk: All Ethnic and Racial Groups,” 2004, p.1).
            Research material on the impact of culture on eating behavior and eating disorder among different groups residing in the US is scarce.  Moreover, there is a more limited resource material for dietary patterns among cultural groups living outside the United States.  The conclusion of some research materials are even conflicting as some conclude that maladaptive eating behavior appear to be less among individuals living outside the United States.  On the other hand, there are some who conclude that eating disorders are becoming more widespread in Spain, South Africa, Mexico, India, China, Hongkong, Singapore, Thailand and Japan.  The conflicting conclusions suggest that more research must be done to arrive at a consensus on the impact of culture on a society’s eating behavior and eating disorder. 

The Tripartite Model
            Culture is considered as one of the more important influence in the development of eating disorder.  This influence is so vast and pervasive that it affects any person regardless of the color of his skin, his sex, social status or even his age.  Charlotte N. Markey explains using his Tripartite Model how culture is linked to eating disorder or disordered eating.  First, the transmission of eating patterns from one generation to the next including food preferences and restrictive practices may lead to the adoption of healthy and unhealthy eating behaviors.  Second, research suggests that values regarding physical appearance are in part culturally determined.  Third, health and illness are socially and culturally constructed that it would not be possible to think of health and well-being outside the context of a person’s culture.
Socialization and Eating Disorder
            One of the manifestations of culture can be found in how family socialize with one another.  The family is still the most effective mechanism through which culture is learned ad acquired.  Family members share and transmit, consciously or unconsciously, to one another certain behavior – this includes eating behavior.  Thus, it is considered that eating socialization is considered one of the manifestations of how powerful cultural influences are.  For example, while there are many other variables and factors that can affect a child’s eating behavior, the role that parents play and their child feeding practices are considered one of the strongest contributory factors for eating behavior and even eating disorder. 
            According to research conducted by Darcy L. Johannsen (2006), parents typically exercise two primary aspects of control over their children (Darsy L. Johannsen, 2006, p.1).  The first is restriction which pertains to the act of a parent in restricting the child’s access to junk foods and restricting the total amount of food.  The second is pressure which involves the act of a parent in pressuring children to eat healthy foods and pressuring them to eat in general.  While these are desired goals, the means in achieving these goals have frequently led to undesired result.  For example, when parents want their children to eat fish and vegetables they would usually resort to bribery or reward system by offering the child unhealthy food such as fries, burgers or even carbonated drinks.  The adverse effect of this strategy is that this may lead to increased desire for and over-consumption of unhealthy and restricted food instead of liking the healthy foods.  Thus, children have the tendency to eat unhealthy foods not because they actually desire it but because it is given as a reward for something that is done.  The parental control in pressuring children to eat healthy foods has an adverse impact on them as it leads to decreased preferences among children in these foods.  On the other hand, parental restriction on access to junk and unhealthy food may even lead to the children desiring these foods even more and consuming them more after the parents stop monitoring their children.  As a result, family socialization as one of the aspects of culture, facilitate the adoption of eating behavior and may contribute to eating disorder. 

Cultural Influence on Body Image Ideals
            A person’s perceptions of his body, his/her concept of an ideal body image and dissatisfaction towards his/her body are factors that can lead to the development of eating disorders.  An ideal body image is the sum total of a person’s perceptions, attitudes and values about his/her body.  In simple terms, it is the way a person perceives his weight, body size and appearance.  This concept of an ideal body image is very important because in some cases a person’s self-esteem is closely connected to a person’s body image.  Oftentimes, the more a person is dissatisfied about his body image, the more he is likely to have eating disorders.  According to studies, body dissatisfaction has been found to be closely connected to dieting, binge eating, purging, excessive laxative use, and cessation of all eating (Cortney S. Warren, 2005, p.241).
            Several studies have been made on the reasons why some persons appear to be dissatisfied with their body image.  One of the most often cited reasons is the cultural emphasis on thinness as an integral part to attractiveness which is widely prevalent in the Western countries.  Women in Western countries agree that in Western culture appearance is central and integral on a person’s value and role in society.  The ideal is that a person who is fit and has a thin body is assured of success and life satisfaction.  Western culture also emphasizes that a thin body is attainable and is the norm.  The concept of what should be the ideal body measurement is further reinforced by the mass media such as the television and magazine which the people seek for advice on fashion trends.  Thus, Western culture and mass media both operate to create what should be considered as an ideal body size for women. 
The reality however is that not all women have body weight and size similar to that being portrayed by the mass media.  Not all are as blessed with shapely figures and fantastic legs.  As a result, more women in Western countries tend to be dissatisfied with their body.  Because women tend to compare themselves to the ideal female which is artificially created by culture and mass media, they eventually realize that not everyone can meet this cultural expectation.  This leads to dissatisfaction.  Dissatisfaction leads to low self-esteem.  This was confirmed and corroborated by 25 experimental studies that examined the effect of viewing thinness-idealizing media on women’s body image where the participants were found to have become more dissatisfied with their bodies after viewing thin models than after viewing average-sized models. 
However, not all women are predisposed to developing eating disorder.  While culture may be a powerful contributor to a person’s eating disorder, culture may also serve as a protection against eating disorder.  While it may be true that there are some cultures which are predisposed to eating disorder, there are some which help provide protection to avoid eating disorder.   It s possible that some ethnic groups may, despite Western influence, be shielded from eating disorders.  Instead, they may prefer more realistic and attainable physical ideals.  It is also possible that other cultures may place lesser value on physical appearance as a manifestation of self worth.  Other culture may even consider that physical appearance has no relation to a person’s success or role in the society. 
For example, while Mexicans are as predisposed to suffer eating disorder just like those in Western countries, statistically speaking, they are less likely to have poor self-image that can eventually lead to eating disorder.   Mexican culture, by tradition, idealizes a larger and curvy physique.  Mexican culture likewise values close family relationships, interdependence, and social interaction.  While those who have a mix of Mexican American culture may be aware of the glorification of thin body among Americans, they are protected against the possibility that they will internalize this concept of a thin body as an ideal body image and suffer from body dissatisfaction.  They may also be protected from the idea that a person’s appearance is tied to his self-worth. 

Cultural Influence on Health and Illness
            Studies say that objectively speaking, Americans are healthier nowadays than they use to be.  Americans have longer life expectancy.  In addition, medicines are available now for just about any sickness known to man.  Technology has also improved which have contributed to the improvement of a person’s quality of life and well-being (DiMattero & Martin, 2002).  Yet, subjectively more Americans feel they are sick.  More Americans have been reported to be dissatisfied with their health and have sought medical attention despite the fact that medical findings say that they are well.  The reason for this is that illness is a state when an individual feels ill and behaves in a particular way.  It is therefore a psychological concept which has a different meaning for different people.  The same is true for a person’s health.  Health is not a medical concept but a psychological concept which is based on a person’s individual and personal evaluation of his body state and ability to function.  
            The difference in the understanding of health and illness and even treatment is also rooted in cultural differences.  For example, Eastern culture treats diseases and illness by restoring balance and harmony in a person’s body.  Some of the most common forms of treatment in the East are use of herbal drugs, acupuncture and massage.  Western culture, however, emphasizes on use of drugs and surgery to treat diseases.  Culture also exerts influence in the recognition of what constitutes illness in a person.  Thus, it is possible that a particular culture may not consider eating disorder as an illness or a disease and take it for granted.  In some culture, eating disorder may be considered as a serious illness which may require immediate medical attention.  In these situations some people who may already have eating disorder may not get the appropriate treatment necessary.  Thus, cultural influence helps in defining when a person is healthy or ill or when a person needs medical treatment or not. 
Multi-Cultural Issues and Eating Disorders
            The Tripartite Model reveals that how culture is inextricably linked to a variety of eating behavior and the development of eating disorder.  The family socialization especially in how the parents restrict their children’s access to unhealthy foods or in how the parents pressure their children to eat healthy foods may have an adverse effect on their children leading to the development of eating disorder.  A person’s body image and perceptions about his own body are also influenced by his culture.  Our concepts of health and illness and even treatment are also influenced by our culture.
            Considering these factors, it can be said that every cultural and ethnic group are susceptible to developing eating disorder.  Applying the Tripartite Model, there are so many ways by which a person can develop eating problems.  It could be because of poor upbringing and feeding patterns on the part of their parents.  Any parent in his desire to encourage his children to stay away from unhealthy foods may commit a mistake and unconsciously may even be encouraging his children to eat unhealthy foods.  Poor upbringing of children and poor feeding patterns are not problems common only to Western culture.  These problems are also common among Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, and even Middle Easterners. 
            Even if family socialization has helped in developing excellent eating behavior, poor self-image may have harmful effect on the individual’s eating behavior that may lead to eating disorder.  For example, as earlier stated while Hispanic women can also have eating disorders, they are less likely to have this problem.  This is because Mexican culture does not emphasize individualism but interdependence.  It emphasizes that a person should not be stigmatized and judged if he has weight problems.   
            A person’s values may also help in avoiding eating disorder problems.  This is particularly true of Asian values of loyalty to family and deference to authority.  While it may be true that because of globalization more women from different parts of the world are developing insecurities about their bodies, Asian women are considered to be less likely to develop eating disorders.  The family is important for Asian women.  Most often, they would consult their parents and listen to their advice.  They would much rather share their problem to their family members instead of solving the problems on her own. This helps Asian women better cope with their problems as opposed to women in Western countries who are individualistic and would rather prefer to solve their problems on their own. 
            The culture of African American women are also protects them against eating disorder.  Studies show that African American women prefer larger body shapes compared to Caucasian women.  It was also reported that they have greater satisfaction with their bodies compared to Caucasian women.  According to Jacquelyn Eckern (2009), “African American women who take pride in their cultural heritage are more likely to refer to the more liberal body ideal of their race when evaluating their own body.”  This attitude helps African American women to maintain a more positive body image that is not otherwise present among Caucasian women.  Thus, they are less likely to develop eating disorders.  The important concern, however, are those African-American women who closely identify themselves with the European American women. 

            The widespread and pervasive influence of culture makes it one of the most important contributory factors in the development of eating disorder.  While every cultural group is susceptible, not all cultural groups is affected the same way.  There are cultural groups which share similar attitude and values that make them more likely to develop eating behaviors.  These cultural groups are women in Western countries who have relatively poor self-image and who identify success with the size of their hips.  There are those cultural groups, however, who are less likely to develop eating disorders in view of their strong family ties, have preference for bigger body shapes, and who have strong relationship with the people around him.  These cultural groups are Hispanic women, Asian women and African-American women.

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