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Eating Disorders Part 2: Body Image, Eating Disorders, Westernization, and Global Progression

February 13, 2010

This post is Part 2 in a series on body image and eating disorders. Here the research behind the theory of ‘Westernization’, gender roles, and the effect of both on eating disorders globally.

Women, Politics, Culture, Media and Development of Eating Disorders

It is strongly established that in American and Europe eating disorders are diseases that primarily afflict caucasian women. Although, closely tied to factors such as personality, family, and media exposure; gender’s relationship to disordered eating is one that has been limitedly explored. What ‘is’ is simply accepted as the hallmark of a disease in a certain population, that population being women. However, eating disorders have also been compellingly tied to a rise in industry and affluence in cultures (1,2, 3, 4, 5).

Historically, this tie to industry and affluence appears in the United States where issues such as ‘weight phobia’ did not exist until the 1930’s, when the ‘tuberculin look’ ushered in thinness as a cultural image of beauty (4). Previously, in American history full-figured features in women were coveted as a sign of prosperity. This fuller ideal is present in many non-industrialized and developing nations and was once thought to be  a protective cultural factor against the development of eating disorders. However, rates of eating disorders are rising despite this cultural preference, even in non-white female populations globally (3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11).


In the countries where disordered eating rates are rising the most rapidly, western culture and media is becoming more accessible. Western culture as a concept is also linked to ‘modernism’, together they represent elevated consumerism, independence, capitalism, changes in women’s roles or opportunities, idealization of self-discipline, media saturation and access to communication and entertainment outlets (10). This western culture, first emphasized in America and Europe, has spread quickly to other nations since World War II. There is some discussion in literature about whether westernization is a shift in culture or a mark of class that the indigenous culture is pursuing. Either way, the link between changes in culture to a more westernized model, either way rates of eating disorders have been strongly linked (5, 9, 10, 12). For example, Japan is the first non-western nation to become, over a period of time, highly industrialized and economically powerful after World War II. Over this same period of time the rates of disordered eating in Japan has greatly increased, now closely resembling U.S. prevalence rates (11).

Strongly tied to industrialization is media, which takes multiple and varied forms including advertising, and becomes widely available to young women within a culture that is becoming more westernized. There is very compelling research evidence to support that media, in its varied formats, affects women’s views of their body, body satisfaction, body image disturbance, and increases the rates of eating disorders (1, 5,  8, 13, 14).  Western media sources are noted for their extremely thin depiction of women. Exposure, particularly through print media, advertising, and magazine images create insecurities and social comparisons between self and the images portrayed in the magazines (15, 16). These images are interpreted and sold as ideals of beauty, which women need to achieve to obtain a companion and happiness.

Eating Disorders Globally

The rates of eating disorders are increasing around the globe, with the greatest increases occurring in the last few decades. In countries that were previously believed to be without disordered eating, such as China, cases are now being reported. Other areas such as South America, Japan, and India rates of eating disorders are now comparable to British and the U.S. (2, 4, 11). To understand eating disorder rates, movement from strictly Caucasian American and British populations to minorities in these countries and then subsequent countries will be reviewed in future posts.


1. Becker, A., Burwell, R., Navara, K., & Gilman, S. (2003). Binge eating and binge eating disorders in a small-scale, indigenous society: the view from Fiji. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 34, 423-431.

2. Bhugra, D., Bhui, K., & Gupta, K. (2000). Bulimic disorders and sociocentric values in north India. Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology, 35, 86-93.

3. Cummins, L., Simmons, A., & Zane, N. (2005). Eating disorders in Asian populations: A critique of current approaches to the study of culture, ethnicity, and eating disorders. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75(4), 553-574.

4. Miller, M., & Pumarega, A. (2001). Culture and eating disorders: A historical and cross-cultural review. Psychiatry, 64(2), 93-110.

5. Tiggemann, M., & Ruutel, I. (2001). A cross-cultural comparison of body dissatisfaction in Estonian and Australian young adults and its relationship with media exposure. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology, 32(6), 736-742.

6.  Abrams, L., & Cook, S. (2002). Sociocultural variations in body image perceptions of urban adolescent females. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31(6), 443-450.

7. Alegria, M., Woo, M., & Cao, Z., et al. (2007). Prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in Latinos in the United States. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40, S15-S21

8. Cash, T., & Pruzinsky, T. (2002). Body image: A handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice. New York: Guilford Press.

9. Hesse-Biber, S., Leavy, P., Quinn, C., & Zoine, J. (2006). The mass marketing of disordered eating and eating disorders: the social psychology of women, thinness, and culture. Women’s Studies International Forum, 29, 208-224.

10. Lester, R. (2004). Commentary: Eating disorders and the problem of “culture” in acculturation. Culture, Medicine and psychiatry, 28, 607-615.

11. Pike, K., & Borovy, A. (2004). The rise of eating disorders in Japan: Issues of culture and limitations of the model of “westernization”. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 28, 493-531.

12. Lake, A., Staiger, P., & Glowinski, H. (2000). Effect of Western culture on women’s attitudes to eating and perceptions of body shape. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 27, 83-89.

13. Gunewardene, A., Huon, G., & Zheng, R. (2001). Exposure to Westernization and dieting: A cross-cultural study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 29, 289-293.

14. Shuriquie, N. (1999). Eating disorders: A transcultural perspective. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal, 5(2), 354-360.

15. Byrd-Bredbenner, C., & Murray, J. (2003). A comparison of the anthropometric measurements of idealized female body images in media directed to men, women, and mixed gender audiences. Topics in Clinical Nutrition, 18(2), 117-129.

16. Morrison, T., Kalin, R., & Morrison, M. (2004). Body-image evaluation and body-image investment among adolescents: A test of sociocultural and social comparison theories. Adolescence, 39(155), 571-592.

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