Often, in writing about eating disorders, you will come across references to how some consider these disorders to be “culture bound.” If you start to unpack what researchers and clinicians are referring to, you might come to the conclusion that “culture bound” means specific to one particular culture or society, for example, modern Western society.
By extension, you might then think that the more “Western” a culture is, the more likely that there will be eating disorders present. You might have seen this logic reproduced in such works as: “Western Media is the Root of all Evil” (note: title does not refer to an actual study/article… I hope).
The way the popular press has taken up the culture boundedness of eating disorders does not always represent the way that it is described in research articles (I know, you’re shocked–not). Generally, and quite predictably, the “culture bound” nature of eating disorders is much more complex than a matter of a transporting cultural values (and thus eating disorders) from one society to another.
So let’s go back. Way back to 1994, when Anne E. Becker published a chapter entitled “Nurturing and Negligence: Working on Others’ Bodies in Fiji.” Or perhaps we could return to 2002, when her article “Eating Behaviors and Attitudes Following Prolonged Television Exposure Among Ethnic Fijian Adolescent Girls” appeared in the British Journal of Psychiatry. These studies were foundational to an exploration of the “culture bound” nature of eating disorders, and so might help scaffold this exploration.
In her work on television and body image in Fiji, Becker looked at how young women in Fiji negotiated their identity development during a time at which their cultural surround was in flux. Frequently, in reiterations of Becker’s work, interpreters draw upon her findings that indicated an increase in body dissatisfaction, weight/shape preoccupation, and disordered eating behaviours when television was introduced to the island. Some use these findings to make a case for the “Western-media-is-at-the-root-of-all-ills” argument.
Is Western media at the root of all ills? Well, it rarely helps anyone feel good about themselves. But is there more to the picture? One of Becker’s more interesting (in my opinion) findings relates to the ways in which her participants negotiated their identities not only amidst a changing visual landscape, but alongside major shifts in Fiji’s political economy.
This is perhaps best described in a 2004 article, wherein Becker reports on following up with 30 young girls in Fiji three years after television was introduced. In this lengthy article, Becker touches on everything from the types of television programs introduced and the associated aesthetic ideals they portray to the changing economic landscape of Fiji.
Notably, the introduction of television was not the only major change happening in Fiji at the time; the very nature of work was ongoing a major shift from a relatively narrow set of job opportunities (e.g., domestic labour, plantation work) to a wage-based economy where people are encouraged to buy things and accumulate wealth.
Becker introduces a few important nuances as she describes how young girls’ shaped their identities in this time of flux.
Firstly, young girls did emulate and work toward a thin ideal, but mainly commented on the influence of marketing and advertisements, rather than television programs themselves, in shifting their attitudes about body work. Additionally, the work to be like the characters in the programs themselves was about more than just appearance, for example being a woman who occupies a similar place in the world to a man (as exemplified in Xena the Warrior Princess, for example).
Much of this role modeling was tied into concerns about the world of work; this could be tied into weight and shape concern when girls saw attractive characters achieving success. Notably, this pursuit (i.e., an individualistic concern for social and economic advancement) did not fit with traditional Fijian values (as Becker described them, noting that “competition and achievement are not traditionally sanctioned values among ethnic Fijians” (p. 545).
Instead of working on their bodies to be attractive, participants made comments about how body-work, and the resulting thin form they might achieve, made them appear less lazy and more successful. For example, a participant said:
It makes me feel good because I am thin and I can do every work in the family at home, unlike fat people who are always getting lazy and feel like relaxing all the time. (S-48)
Here, we start to see that problematic and unfortunately often-heard equating of morality, productivity, and body size.
Links to disordered eating were somewhat less clear than links to the desire to engage in body work more generally; Fijian girls negotiated between an understanding of dieting, appetite loss, and weight loss as negative (as per traditional Fijian values) and the use of disordered strategies to emulate the “successful” women on the screen.
The kinds of shifts in aesthetic ideals are only the tip of the iceberg, as it were, in terms of the broader shifts at play. Shifts in preferences for thin bodies are here tied to shifts in working on one’s own body as opposed to caring for others’ bodies (e.g., through feeding and other practices).
To boil it down even further, Becker argues (quite convincingly) that body shaping and disordered eating might hold a different meaning in different social contexts. We can’t untie the girls’ desire to change their bodies from the political economic landscape of the time, in which competition was increasing, consumerism was becoming more important, and girls might feel caught in between traditional and emerging styles of being.
What does it mean for our understanding of eating disorders as culture-bound?
So, why unearth what might be considered a relic of a study to explore and critique it? I would argue that one of the important offerings from this study has too often been missed (and in fact might have benefitted from even more unpacking in Becker’s work).
Becker comments on how young girls in Fiji may not have strong role models to guide them through a society in transition, and so might turn to television programs to navigate the challenging terrain of a shift to competitive, consumeristic, individualistic modes of work. In so doing, they might conflate appearance with success.
However, I would say that she leaves undertheorized how these young girls might experience the caught-in-between-ness of traditional and emerging social landscapes. Might this conflict, rather than the explicit modeling of bodies on television-presented ideals, be at least partly at the root of disordered eating behaviours and dissatisfaction with bodies?
For all of her consideration of the need to explore the broader socio-political landscape, Becker leaves relatively untouched the idea that there could be intervening “cultural” variables which lead to distress–in other words, it might not be a linear trajectory from economy-at-change to seeking role models in the media to linking bodies to success.
Further, not being Fijian herself, it might be hard to say what kind of a grasp Becker had on the “traditional values” espoused by Fijian individuals. Though she spoke to Fijians about culture and likely immersed herself in this culture from a researcher and experiential perspective, it is possible that she is to a certain extent projecting a Western perspective on Fijian values (e.g. assuming collectivity in non-Western societies). She might also have more explored in more intricate detail the kinds of cross-currents at play: what about resistance about the capitalist economy of accumulation and consumption? Who is resisting, and how, and what role does this have in shaping sense of self and relation to body?
So, in short, there is more to be gleaned from Becker’s work than media-causes-eating-disorders, of course. The other elements of her work help us to look beyond this simplistic assumption and unearth the rootedness of body work in broader political, social, and economic milieu. There is more work to be done to unpack what counts as “culture,” still to come (in the third part of this series).
In the next post, I’ll provide another perspective on culture boundedness, in which Keel & Klump suggest that bulimia is culture bound, while anorexia is not. Stay tuned to find out why!
Becker, A. (2004). Television, Disordered Eating, and Young Women in Fiji: Negotiating Body Image and Identity during Rapid Social Change Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 28 (4), 533-559 DOI: 10.1007/s11013-004-1067-5