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Is culture breeding eating disorders?

By Nida Mustafa


Eating disorders are defined by disturbances in eating behaviour and negative body perceptions of oneself—and are becoming more common for women of the South Asian community, especially in young adolescents who are living in the West. Some researchers believe this is due to the pressures these ladies are facing as they are influenced by the “Western culture”, forcing them to put greater emphasis on their physical appearance, body satisfaction, and body size.

However, other researchers suggest negative body images and eating disorder behaviour come from deeper social, cultural, and familial issues such as family expectations and control, negative relationships, and sexual abuse. For example, in many South Asian families young females are expected to look a certain way with emphasis placed on weight, height, skin color and hair.

Research is now beginning to show the pressure of fitting these expectations creates tension for young girls, especially around ‘marriage age’. With the parental pressure of getting married and having to look the very best in every way, girls begin to control their food intake–often to unhealthy limits. If not caught at this stage, these thoughts and behaviours can get much worse and take the form of an eating disorder.

A few researchers have only now begun to study this increase in the South Asian community and have identified cultural clash as a social risk factor in these women. Balancing two sets of values, norms, and expectations may lead to developing body distortions and negative images of oneself. A study conducted in the United Kingdom found South Asian parents who show more discipline, control and authority over their children are more likely to have daughters who report psychological problems associated with eating disorder behaviour.

Often being told how to dress at social gatherings, how to behave with family and friends, and how to carry oneself, girls are torn and conflicted between their traditional values and their Western ideals. For example fashion in the West encourages a more liberal type of dressing and behaviour. If South Asian girls want to be part of this culture they may be offending and going against their traditional morals and family values. Conflicts like these create unease and stress for many girls. Therefore, to regain control over themselves young South Asian girls take control and dictate their bodies.

Being South Asian myself, I have experienced certain social and cultural struggles trying to balance traditional South Asian values and behaviour while living and growing up in the West. I have forced myself many times to eat large amounts of traditional South Asian foods (often greasy!) at family gatherings, not being able to say no because of disobedience and disrespect to the host—values I was taught at a very young age. Some girls may feel this type of behaviour repeated several times a month may cause them to gain weight, and therefore start controlling food intake. This may then escalate into more severe forms and ultimately lead to negative eating habits.

These types of occurrences do exist in many households, and more research is needed in our community to better understand these instigators and to raise awareness. Analyzing whether these cultural differences or traditional expectations are associated with body image distortions in women of this background is an important first step.

As parents it is necessary to acknowledge body image is a serious problem that may affect our children growing up in Canada. It is also important to understand the difficulties and complexities associated with balancing different cultural values, practices and beliefs, and how this may take a toll on one’s psychological wellbeing, especially at a young age. More research is needed to understand how and why eating disorders have become an issue, and how to create better support services for the South Asian community. By raising awareness and reducing stigma and taboo surrounding health problems such as this, more young girls and women will feel comfortable with who they are and who they are growing to be.

If you would like to be part of research associated with eating disorders in the South Asian community, have had similar experiences, or have any questions regarding this issue, please contact me at Nida.Mustafa@uoit.ca. Your thoughts, feedback, and interest are greatly appreciated.


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. (2011). Disorder Index: Eating Disorders.

Furnham, A., Adam-Saib, S. (2001). Abnormal eating attitudes and behaviours and perceived parental control: a study of white British and British-Asian school girls. Soc Psychiatry Epidemiol, 36: 462-470.

Jayakar, K. (1994). Women of color: integrating ethnic and gender identities in psychotherapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Zaidi, A. U., & Shuraydi, M. (2002). Perceptions of arranged marriages by young Pakistani Muslim women living in a Western society. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 33(4): 495-514.



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2 Responses to Is culture breeding eating disorders?

  1. Nadia August 11, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks for shedding light on eating disorders among South Asians. Older South Asians tend to be very blunt and often have commented on my weight, whether it’s losing or gaining. I’ve been asked if I was pregnant a few times because I gained weight and was married. We need to place more emphasis on being healthy.

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