Link between cultural factors and eating disorders questioned


WESTPORT, CT (Reuters Health) – Higher rates of eating disorders in Western nations are widely attributed to cultural norms and the media that promotes images of very thin female bodies. But the findings of a new study of Iranian women living in Iran and the US questions this cultural influence.

Dr. Traci Mann and Panteha Abdollahi of the University of California, Los Angeles, who studied 104 college women, found that women who lived in Tehran were more concerned about their weight than were women of Iranian descent who lived in Los Angeles.

On average, women in Tehran wanted to lose 9 pounds, while those in Los Angeles hoped to shed 5.5 pounds, according to findings published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

"Neither exposure to Western media nor acculturation to Western norms appeared to be related to symptoms of disordered eating and body image concerns," the investigators write.

In fact, the California researchers note, the findings lend no support to their three expectations going into the study: that women in Tehran would have fewer eating disorder symptoms; that they would be more satisfied with their bodies; and that among women in the US, greater acculturation would lead to poorer body image and eating habits.

However, the findings do support those of a previous study in which women on the Caribbean island of Curacao were found to have a rate of anorexia comparable to those seen in Western nations.

In the current study, the Los Angeles residents had lived in the US for an average of nearly 15 years. The length of time a woman had spent in America seemed to have no bearing on her body image, tendency to diet or concern over gaining weight. No significant differences between women in Iran and the US were observed on these points.

The findings suggest that "Western norms and focus on body are not as central as previously thought in the development of eating disorders," the researchers write.

While the findings were surprising, the researchers suggest some possible explanations. For one, Iran was a "highly westernized" country before the Islamic revolution of 1978, and some of these Western influences may have lingered. In addition, there may be other cultural influences in current Iranian society that influence women's body image.

Int J Eat Disord 2001;30:259-268.

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