Special Report

Distorted Images

Susan McClelland August 14 2000
Special Report

Distorted Images

Susan McClelland August 14 2000

Distorted Images

Western cultures are exporting their dangerous obsession with thinness

Susan McClelland

When Zahra Dhanani was just seven years old, her four-foot frame already packed 100 lb.—so her mother, Shahbanu, put her on her first diet. “My mother, a fat woman, daughter of another fat woman, thought if I was skinny, different from her, I would be happy,” says Dhanani. The diet, and many after, did not have the desired effect. By 13, Dhanani was sporadically swallowing appetite suppressants; at 17, she vomited and used laxatives to try to keep her weight under control. There were times when she wanted to die. “I had so much self-hate,” recalls the 26-year-old Toronto immigration lawyer, “I couldn’t look in the mirror without feeling revulsion.”

The hate reflected more than just weight. “It was race,” says Dhanani, who had moved with her family to Canada from East Africa when she was 4. “I was straightening my hair— doing anything to look white.” Her recovery only began when, at age 19, she started to identify with women in other cultures. “I came to realize that there were people who revered large women of colour,” says Dhanani, who now says she loves all of her 200 lb. She blames part of her earlier eating disorders on the images in western media; “When you have no role models to counteract the messages that fat is repulsive, it’s hard to realize that you are a lovable human being.”

Body image may be one of the western world’s ugliest exports. Thanks to television, magazines, movies and the Internet, rail-thin girls and steroid-built beef-boys are being shoved in the faces of people all over the world. As a result, experts say, cultures that used to regard bulk as a sign of wealth and success are now succumbing to a narrow western standard of beauty. And that, in turn, is leading to incidences of eating disorders in regions where anorexia and bulimia had never been seen before. But body-image anxiety in ethnic cultures runs much deeper than weight. In South Africa, almost six years after the end of apartheid, black women still use harmful skin-bleaching creams in the belief that whiter is prettier. “We’re seeing a homogenization and globalization of beauty ideals,” says Niva Piran, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto. “It’s white. It’s thin. And the result is that people come to identify less with their own cultures and more with an image in the media.”

In most cultures, bigger was considered better until the 19th century. “The larger a man’s wife, the more he was seen as a good provider,” says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a professor of American women’s history at Cornell University and author of Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. That began to change during the Industrial Revolution, she says, as women in the United States and Great Britain began to see thinness as a way to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. By the 1920s, fat was seen as unhealthy. And in the burgeoning magazine, movie and fashion industries, the women depicted as being successful in love, career and finances were slim and almost always white.

Still, eating disorders are not a modern affliction. Records of women starving themselves (anorexia) date back to the medieval period (1200 to 1500). As Brumberg notes in Fasting Girls, during this time, a woman who did not eat was admired for having found some other form of sustenance than food, like prayer.

Yet, until the last century, the number of women who fasted was low. But, particularly over the past 30 years, the number of anorexics and women who self-induce vomiting (bulimia) or use laxatives has increased dramatically. “It’s generally this obsession with the body, constant weight-watching, that introduces a person to these behaviours,” says Merryl Bear of the Toronto-based National Eating Disorder Information Centre. It was commonly believed, however, that sufferers

Records Of women starving themselves date back to the medieval period

came predominantly from white, middleand upper-class backgrounds. Experts thought ethnic minorities were immune because of their strong ties to communities that emphasize family and kinship over looks alone.

Studies done in the United States with Hispanic, black and Asian college students, however, show that women who are alienated from their minority cultures and integrated into mainstream society are prone to the same pressures of dieting as their white counterparts. In a recent study of South-Asian girls in Peel, Ont., 31 per cent responded that they were not comfortable with their body shape and size. Fifty-eight per cent compared their appearance with others, including fashion models—and 40 per cent wanted to look like them.

Some of the most compelling research comes from Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Anne Becker, who was in Fiji in 1995 when the government announced that TV, including western programs, would be introduced. “Fijians revere a body that is smrdy, tall and large—features that show that the body is strong, hardworking and healthy,” says Becker. “Thinness and sudden weight loss was seen as some kind of social loss or neglect.”

In 1998, Becker returned to Fiji and found that this had all changed. Her studies showed that 29 per cent of the girls now had symptoms of eating disorders. Many said they vomited to lose weight. But what was most alarming were the girls’ re-

sponses about the role of television in their lives. “More than 80 per cent said that watching TV affected the way they felt about their bodies,” Becker says. “They said things such as, ‘I watched the women on TV, they have jobs. I want to be like them, so I am working „ on my weight now. ’ These teenagers are I getting the sense that as Fiji moves into \ the global economy, they had better § find some way to make wages and they I are desperate to find role models. The ^ West to them means success and they 1 are altering their bodies to compete.” Cheryl McConney has felt the pressures to alter her body, too. The black 32-year-old native of Richmond Hill, Ont., co-hosts a daytime talk show on cable TV. And although it has not been difficult for her to get where she is in her career, she is concerned about how to navigate her next step. “Looking at Canadian television, I don’t see many people who look like me on air,” she says. At five-foot-frve, and weighing about 145 lb., McConney has never been told she should lose weight. Still, in 1998, she went on a six-month, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, hoping to look better in front of the camera. She shed 20 lb. “I felt good. People in the studio thought I looked great, but it wasn’t easy to maintain.” Within a year, she had gained it all back.

For McConney, race has been more of an issue. An industry insider jokingly told her that she would do better if she dyed her hair blond. And just a few months ago, she was discouraged from applying for another on-air host position because of what the casting agents said they were looking for. “They wanted the ‘girl next door’ and ‘peaches-and-cream’ pretty, not chocolate and cream,” says McConney, adding: “It was pretty clear some women were not invited to participate because of their skin colour.” As to the girl next door part: “I said it just depends where you live.” While McConney says she is determined to make it on air despite the barriers, Linda, who requested Macleans not use her real name, may not be around to see her success. The 19year-old—part South African and part East Indian—has anorexia. She says trying to fit into a Canadian suburban community played a big role in her illness. “I was never proud of my different religion, different skin colour,” she says. “I would put white baby powder on my cheeks just to make me look white.” What alarms her now, Linda says, is that with her skin pale from malnutrition and her weight fluctuating between 75 and 85 lb., other young women often come up to her and say, “You look so good, I wish I looked like you.” But she adds: “What they don’t know is that my body is decaying. People glamorize eating disorders. But what it is is a lifetime of hospitalization and therapy.” As long as the western media promote thinness and whiteness as the pinnacle of beauty, stories like Linda’s will remain all too familiar.