The Globalization of Eating Disorders

Globalization is a phenomenon that has been widely known for its positive effects of bringing cultures together and facilitating communication through vehicles such as the internet. On the other hand, the negative effects of globalization have not been emphasized as such by many scholars. Therefore, acknowledging how globalization has affected our lives is the first step towards finding a solution to the problems that come in tandem with globalization. This article will discuss one of the most important aspect of a woman’s life, which is maintaining an attractive overall appearance, through the lens of globalization. It is unfortunate that globalization plays a major, indirect role in promoting eating disorders which includes Anorexia Nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Anorexia Nervosa has been encouraged through the use of traditional media and social while binge-eating disorder has been promoted through the success of macdonalization, location of fast food restaurants, availability of healthy food restaurants and the fact that people now have a sedentary lifestyle.


Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder in which patients restrict their calorie intake and that leads to an extreme drop in body weight and physical health. The patients have intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat even though they are extremely underweight and finally they have a distorted perception of their own body which makes them see themselves as fat or simply in denial that they are dangerously underweight (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Unfortunately, globalization promotes this mental illness by making many people vulnerable to being victims of AnorexiaNervosa through media exposure. Littlewood (2004) described how the media have created a “fear of fatness” and Dr. Sabrina Tahboub-Schulte (2015), a research psychologist in the field of eating disorders, supports the latter by saying that the “media has idealized body images and can definitely be one of the main factors that can contribute to body dissatisfaction and therefore to the development of eating disorders. The aspect of globalization here would be the fact that eating disorders are typically and originally presented in the Western culture (Sharan & Sundar, 2015), yet since Hollywood is an extremely strong, American industry in the field of movie production, people of all ages, worldwide watch them. Sadly, these movies have created “a culture of eating disorders” as stated by Fox Kales (2011). There are multiple techniques used in American movies that, on an unconscious level, promote the positivity of having an anorexic body. First, movies always portray fat actors to be goofy, idiotic characters while portraying skinny actors to be powerful, beautiful heroes. For example, in the movie ‘Brides maids’ an obvious comparison was made between the fat goofy character played by Melissa McCarthy and her thin friends. To demonstrate, in one of the scenes in which the ladies went to buy the bride’s dress after having a heavy meal, Melissa was the character who started irrationally farting, embarrassing her friends and making them vomit in disgust in front of the saleswoman. Another movie would be ‘Shallow Hal’ in which the male character was only interested in slim women but fell in love with the ridiculous and morbidly obese Gwyneth Paltrow who had a childlike behavior, only because he was under hypnosis and saw her as a perfect blonde, skinny girl. He left her broken hearted after his hypnosis went away and only did they date again after she lost a horrific amount of weight.
Moreover, celebrities themselves are asked to lose lots of weight in order to fit in the perfect image of being the main character in the movie. For example, the movie ‘Black Swan’ has required “…both Natalie and Mila Kunis lost about 20 pounds each – a lot considering that they are both very petite to begin with….” (Radford, 2010, para.2). This issue is not only limited to female characters but the pattern is seen among male actors as well. Similarly, Christian Bale in the movie ‘The Machinist’ had to lose 60 pounds to be able to take the main role. The problem does not simply lie in the fact that these celebrities themselves lose an unrealistic amount of weight in a short period of time (Radford, 2010). However, the real catastrophe takes place when fans of these celebrities want to be as skinny as those celebrities, simply because of how beautiful they are portrayed to be. Therefore, audience members attribute beauty, success and power of the title characters with their slim appearance. What makes matters worse is when celebrities take home with them their anorexic bodies and go in public with positive statements about being skin and bones. The latter was demonstrated by the famous Kate Moss “as she celebrates her 40th year and the launch of her brand new design collaboration with Topshop” by saying “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”” (Selby, 2015, para.5).
Unfortunately, the train of promoting Anorexia in the media doesn’t end at the station of movies. Advertisements, specifically of the cosmetic industry, use photoshopped, skinny models in their ads to promote their products. “The average woman sees 400 to 600 advertisements per day, and by the time she is 17 years old, she has received over 250,000 commercial messages through the media” (Body Image and Advertising, 2014, para.2). Models that appear in magazines weigh 23% less than the average woman and a young woman between the ages of 18-34 has a 7% chance of being as slim as a catwalk model and a 1% chance of being as thin as a supermodel (Olds,1999). However, 69% of girls in one study said that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape (Hamburg, 1998). An example of the use extremely anorexic models in ads would be Victoria’s secrets’ “The Perfect Body” campaign, in which they advertise being confident in your own (skinny) perfect body. They do not acknowledge that most of the world is a size that’s definitely bigger than that of their models’ (Marian, 2014). The great difference in body sizes, between us and the models, creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of average body females. Putting it in simplistic terms, these women start comforting themselves by behaving in ways that would reduce their cognitive dissonance. For example, by extremely limiting their calorie intake.
TV shows as well, promote Anorexia Nervosa in different ways. Shows such as ‘The biggest loser’ emphasize how fat people will be humiliated and unaccepted in the society. The contestants are treated in very harsh ways to the extent that they are called names and bullied so that they stick with the punitive exercises that their coaches assign. This makes the participants, as well as the audience, fear becoming or staying fat. The contestants also lose a very large amount of weight in a very short period of time and that is both distressing and unhealthy. In fact, the crew of this show asks participants to sign a consent form that they are responsible for all that is going to happen to them during the show, just so they can take the responsibility off the shoulders of the show. It is also sad that weight loss stories gain so much attention worldwide and those who lose weight are usually rewarded by gaining recognition in the media or from their loved ones but stories about weight maintenance for those who have an average body and weight gain for those who are anorexic rarely, if ever, gain appreciation. In addition, TV shows like Star Academy forces contestants to conform to a strict diet plan and if they don’t, they lose the singing competition. This promotes subliminal messages that success positively correlates with having a slim physique.
Sadly, the fostering of Anorexia Nervosa is not limited to traditional media and advertising. However, the invention of technology and internet has brought to the surface some significant negative effects of globalization and these obviously include the advocacy of Anorexia nervosa. “Research has shown that eating disorders can be transmitted “like a virus” through social networks” (York, 2013, para.6). In order to understand how this can influence a person to become anorexic, Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive of eating disorder charity, said that “Genetics, brain chemistry, brain structure and the role of hormones are all in the mix. So is the social and cultural environment, and while the social influence can be significant, its biology that loads the gun, culture pulls the trigger.” (York, 2013, Para.11) In this scenario, the culture and social environment would be the online community that one builds on social media. Many online users who already suffer from anorexia post their pictures online with positive comments about their own achievement to lose weight. Followers of such users might walk in their footsteps imitating what they do in order to lose weight. This is extremely dangerous especially that most of the anorexia patients start as overweight people who are looking to adopt a healthy diet for weight loss and after they successfully lose weight, they go downhill from there by restricting their diet even further. Moreover, those who suffer from anorexia yet enjoy their skinny bodies’ run pro-anorexic websites that provide tips, advice and an online community of unhealthy weight management (York, 2013). Dr. Sabrina Tahboub-Schulte (2015) believes that “The possibility to expose yourself to ‘thinspiration’ and pro-anorexic platforms is so much more than what it was 20 to 30 years ago. This risk factor is getting more powerful than it has been in the past.” And of course there is no control over who has access to these platforms which means that even teenagers, who are probably at an age of trying new experiences, will be exposed to it.
Another trend that has gone viral on social media is the concept of selfies. Selfies are defined as a picture that one takes of him/herself. This trend is an example of how social media can encourage the adoption of eating disorders because selfies make people extremely self-conscious about their faces and bodies. People compare how they look to others who upload edited pictures of themselves. It is very important to emphasize the importance of the word ‘edited’ in this context. Most, if not all the people who upload selfies do edit them using Photoshop or other programs that can for example airbrush their face, give them tighter waists, sunk-in bellies and skinny legs. Unfortunately, when women upload selfies that (are not probably edited and) don’t receive comments and likes, they categorize themselves as being ugly and fat. Therefore, they feel the need to lose weight in order to look like the other girls in the edited selfies, not knowing that there is no way a healthy person would be skin and bones. Additionally, trends such as ‘the thigh gap’ has gone way beyond control, leading many girls to following a diet and exercise regimen in order to develop a thigh gap. It is extremely crucial to point out that having a thigh gap is a matter of genetics and only thin to skinny people can actually have a thigh gap. This means that average to normal sized girls look for special diets, exercises and even plastic surgery to develop a thigh gap, which can very much lead them to become anorexic (Salvisberg, Russell-Mayhew & Strong, 2015).

pexels-photo-139681It is ironic how both extremes of eating disorders co-exist in the 21st century. Dr. Sabrina Tahboub-Schulte (2015) believes that this could be because “Humans have very different ways of expressing negative emotions or negative cognitive states or problems in general. Some people fall into the trap of anorexia, which helps them by giving them a feeling of ill-defined control about themselves (which they don’t find in their lives otherwise) and binge eating disorder is the other extreme where you have a constant loss of control but you get some kind of relief and satisfaction from this binge that you engage in. They do not really exclude each other at all are just different ways of maladaptive coping.” On one extreme, globalization is playing a subliminal role in promoting Anorexia Nervosa through the vehicle of social media and traditional media. On the other extreme, globalization, at the same time, is playing a different subliminal role in promoting obesity (also known as binge eating disorder). The concept of ‘Macdonalization’ has made junk food products readily available, with cheap labor and facilitated infrastructure. The fast food industry is dominating all parts of the American society and has successfully been ramified to the rest of the world. For example, Macdonald’s fast food restaurant was founded in America in the year 1940 and started franchising in 1955. Today, Macdonald’s serves 68 million customers in 119 countries across 35,000 outlets (Macdonald’s, 2015). In fact, the up-sizing of fast food meals such as burgers, French fries and Pepsi has immensely contributed to obesity. This is because people eat double the calorie intake in a short period of time. A typical example would be MacDonald’s beef burgers that were once made up of only one slice of beef and today has up to two slices in one bun.
Another aspect of globalization that promotes the binge eating syndrome is the fact that fast food restaurants choose to build their infrastructure in community areas where there are schools and buildings. This increases the chances that those who live in that community or nearby will eat from this fast food restaurant (Austin et al., 2005). Moreover, fast food chains choose places where citizens do not have such a high income (Simon et al., 2008). In other words, restaurants target people who are of an average class and lower because these are the type of people who would not really consider spending a lot of money on healthy food and therefore go for the cheaper option of buying from the neighborhood, affordable fast food restaurant. The population is not just bombarded with junk food around their community but the presence of vending machines, which were first invented in America, in schools and universities has increased the consumption of fatty foods. A study conducted in the United States reveal that “83% of the schools (152 schools; 5,930 students) had vending machines that primarily sold food of minimal nutritional values (soft drinks, chips, and sweets)” (Rovner, Nansel, Wang & Iannotti, 2011, pg.13).
Even though globalization has facilitated the spread and success of fast food restaurants worldwide, it has failed to do the same with vegan/ vegetarian restaurants. A possible reason for the latter could be because the number of vegan/vegetarian restaurants present and advertised are very limited to start with, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Two reasons would be because there is a very minimal fertile land available for yielding vegetables and fruits in the Middle East. In West Africa for example, it is estimated that 319 million hectares of land is vulnerable to desertification hazards. Soil erosion is another issue of great concern and has already reduced Africa’s grain harvest by 8 million tons (Spooner, 2015) because this makes the land unsuitable for agriculture. Not only that, but 99% of the African population are meat eaters, which means that only 1% are vegetarians and vegans (Spooner,2015). However, countries such as the United Arab Emirates where it was a barren desert, have managed to grow crops with the help of trade and product mobility. Unfortunately, there is still lack in vegan/vegetarian restaurants in the country. Even though fast food restaurants have vegetarian salads, 80% of the menu has burgers and junk food that is sold at a much cheaper price than the veggie meals.
In addition, majority of the population, especially in the Middle East, have a sedentary life style. Globalization has made mobility so easy with the invention of airplanes, cars and motorbikes to the extent that people no longer need to leave their homes in order to buy their grocery list! Home delivery opportunities have made the society so laid back and lazy in many countries that include the United Arab Emirates. What is even worse is the fast food restaurants that provide the home delivery opportunity. Customers stay back at home, sitting, laid back and eating the junk, unhealthy food that was delivered at their door step. Obviously, such a transaction would lead to obesity. Plus, the working hours’ intervals, adopted from America, leaves a small room for exercising and doing physical activities. Employees stay desk bound for 9 to 10 hours, which leaves them feeling mentally and physically exhausted by the time their working hours are over. Their body is strained and stiff by the time they leave their work place. Therefore, workers do not have the physical and psychological energy to go to the gym or exercise. The latter applies especially in countries like the United Arab Emirates where the extremely hot climate discourage people to at least go for walks.
To conclude, globalization is a much more powerful process than we can imagine. It has controlled and manipulated many aspects in our life and that includes our eating habits. Globalization has an indirect role in promoting Anorexia Nervosa through vehicles such as traditional media and social media. Traditional media such as Hollywood movies uses skinny celebrities, portraying them to be beautiful, intelligent and always are in the title character. Fat people on the other hand are portrayed as goofy, ridiculous people who are meant to embarrass other characters in the movie. Advertising as well uses skinny models, claiming that this is the average woman body size. On the total opposite end of the spectrum, globalization promotes binge eating disorder known more commonly as obesity through non-virtual means. This includes the concept of macdonalization, the lack of vegan/vegetarian restaurants and the adoption of a sedentary life style. On an end note, it is very ironic how both opposing disorders co-exist in today’s world. Therefore, we need to know exactly the underlying causes of such negative effects of globalization so that solutions for these eating disorders can be designed accordingly.

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