It’s no secret that the media can have an overwhelming influence on us. We spend an average of 34 hours a week watching TV, the car radio buzzes in the background while we run errands and we buy the brands we see in the top magazines. However, for some reason, we don’t often consider a certain body type to be a type of brand, or a television show to be an advertisement, but they are.
This was illustrated all too well by a study done in Fiji, an island country in the South Pacific Ocean, in the mid-1990s – less than 20 years ago.
Fiji had a much later exposure to television media than we’ve experienced in the United States. In fact, the nation didn’t even have electricity until 1985. In 1995, Western programming, similar to the prime-time network TV shows we watch nightly, was introduced to the nation. Prior to this, Fijian men and women cherished fuller- figured, robust, well-muscled body-types. To illustrate this, a former Fijian beauty queen explained to researchers that when she was growing up she was constantly told to put on weight, and that slim women were seen as weak.
Fast-forward to 1998. Eating disorder symptoms skyrocketed. Nearly three-fourths (74%) of Fijian girls reported feeling that they were too big or too fat, and almost 12% of girls reported that they had used purge behavior to control their weight; by 2007, this number had increased to 45%.
Coincidence? I think not. Shortly after the nation was exposed to Western cultural values of beauty and thinness, drastic change with regard to self-image occurred. It’s shocking how deeply and quickly a nation’s core values can be altered through exposure to those of another.
There are, of course, a number of factors contributing to the development of eating disorders; television is not the sole cause, nor is poor body-image the only motivator. That being said, media influence cannot be denied. Anne Becker, the anthropologist behind the research in Fiji, described the television as another pathogen exporting Western images and values.
What are some reactions to this?
What would it take to undo this cultural value system that parts of our world have come to appreciate?
About the author:
Erika Vargas, MA, is the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program Clinician at the Braintree location. She is trained in the Maudsley Method/Family Based-Treatment (FBT); and works with adolescents to decrease eating disorder behaviors with the support of their families.