New research is revealing how the media may influence food issues

Through the decades, television has been blamed for a plethora of ills in children and adolescents: violence, immorality, poor school grades, and eating problems to name but a few. However, it has rarely been possible to infer that TV actually causes anything at all because, in most areas where we study its effects, it has already been established for quite some time. We are drawn into a chicken and egg scenario where we cannot tell what came first: the TV, or the problems. Fijian warriors dance, c.1860

To make any successful conclusions about causation, researchers are drawn to studying an ever shrinking demographic: communities who have not yet or only recently gained access to TV. By looking at body image and eating habits in these populations, we are able to look at the possible effects of exposure to worldwide media.

Psychology researchers from Harvard Medical School did just that in 1998, travelling to Nadroga in Fiji to collect narrative accounts from 30 schoolgirls three years after the introduction of TV to the region. They found”a dramatic increase in indicators of disordered eating” amongst these girls after the introduction of Western TV programming in their region “despite local cultural practices that have traditionally supported robust appetites and body shapes”.

It seems that exposure to American soaps and music videos, and the infomercials in between telling us to buy the latest product to lose weight and look better, really rubbed off on these girls, though their culture traditionally favours larger body types as representing wealth and a loving social network.

Interestingly, there is no indigenous illness in Fiji corresponding to any kind of food issues that we are familiar with in the West . In fact, prior to the 20th century (and the more frequent visitation of these islands by Western peoples), anorexia and bulimia were thought to be rare or non-existent among ethnic Fijians. Contrary to Western concerns, in fact, there is a cultural preoccupation here revolving around a fear of becoming thin.

As well as a favoured larger body type in Fijian culture which jars with the images these girls were being introduced to by TV, the researchers suggested that Fijians are not traditionally motivated to change their bodies to meet a societal ideal. Though the ideal body type is jobu vina (robust), most Fijians do not traditionally express a concern with making efforts to attain this culturally favoured shape. Surprisingly, despite these protective factors, Fijian girls were nevertheless susceptible to the portrayal of the Western ideal ‘slim’ body type and expressed that they felt pressured to emulate this.

The main connection made in these girls’ accounts was between slimness and economic, social and romantic success. Many said that they wished they could look like the stars of their favourite shows, because they would be able to ‘work harder’ – being fat was seen by them now as an indication of laziness. Whether they realised it consciously or not, they had been stimulated by recent changes in their environment (including the introduction of TV) to think that their traditional ideals, beliefs and modes of presentation would be insufficient to afford them success in their increasingly Westernised country.

To put it simply: In the West, thin equals beautiful and successful. Fiji is becoming more like the West, therefore to be beautiful and successful in Fiji,one they must be thin. As the researchers said, “It is as though a mirror was held up to these girls in which they perhaps saw themselves as poor and overweight.”

What can Fiji tell us about our own culture? It could be argued that, like the current shift in Fiji from a traditionally ideal ‘robust’ body type to a Western ideal slim body type, Western girls too must navigate a difficult change from childhood to adulthood through a turbulent period in adolescence, when body image problems and food issues are most likely to emerge. In the West, ‘chubby’ children are admired as cute, and ‘puppy fat’ is recognised as a phenomenon that is acceptable in childhood, but somehow suddenly unacceptable when a person reaches their teen years and is viewed as attractive under new terms.

Though it is not possible to protect our children entirely from the possibly damaging effects of ‘thin’ media, talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may be able to build a strong and healthy view of our self image and conception of what an attainable and healthy ideal body type is.

The House Partnership, 16th February 2012