Different cultures’ perceptions of body image

As a documentary fanatic, I came across one that explored how people in different cultures view body image in detail. I was taken back by the breadth and depths to which people will go in order to acquire the ideal body image that society has set for them.

The one that intrigued me the most and was completely beyond my grasp was Mauritania’s culture. When it comes to Mauritania culture, the size of a female signifies how much of her husband’s heart she occupies. Every year, girls as young as five were exposed to the ritual of leblouh. Older women or the children’s aunts or grandmothers provide pounded millet, camel milk, and water in quantities that make them ill at “fattening farms” for girls from rural families. A regular typical diet for a 6year old will consist of two kilograms of pounded millet mixed with two cups of butter and twenty liters of camel’s milk.

Unknown to her, the girl is taken away from her family. In spite of her pain, she is advised that becoming obese will bring about happiness in the long run. Matrons utilize rolling sticks on the girls’ thighs to break down tissue and expedite the procedure. Sticks are used to punish children who refuse to eat or drink, inflicting tremendous discomfort on them. A 12-year-old who has been successfully fattened will weigh 80 kilograms. If she vomits, she must ingest the liquid. She’ll look like she’s 30 by the time she’s 15. While viewing this documentary, I was amazed at the extremes that people will go to in order to conform to society’s expectations. Currently, my mind is in “wtf mode” as I write this.

Another interesting aspect of body image is the “cult of thinness,” which has been cited as a major factor in the rise in the incidence of eating disorders and in the prevalence of obesity. As Hesse-Biber succinctly states in her book, the majority of westernized women share one desire: they want to be thin–or thinner. And they are willing to go to extreme lengths, even to the point of starvation, to achieve that goal. Why are American women so obsessed with their weight? What has caused an unprecedented number of young women–even before they reach their adolescent years–to develop an obsession with weight, a negative body image, and disordered eating? Why are some young women able to resist cultural demands to lose weight while others are unable to do so? Are there societal elements at play in the current outbreaks of anorexia and bulimia in America? Hesse-Biber goes beyond conventional psychiatric explanations of eating disorders to critique the social, political, and economic pressures women confront in a weight-obsessed society–a culture that, strangely, is becoming increasingly obese while worshiping an increasingly thin ideal.

Americans place too much emphasis on being skinny, according to Glenn Gaesser, a professor at Arizona State University and the author of “Big Fat Lies.” “We have had a fixation with weight loss and how to get skinny for decades now,” he declared. A skinny body is a desirable body, and a thick body is undesirable. This is a false dichotomy, and it has permeated our culture, from fashion to fitness, to health and wellbeing.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought that a healthy body may come in a variety of forms. This suggests that being fit is more essential than being slim, according to Gaesser’s findings: persons who are thick and in shape have superior health outcomes. “I believe that America as a whole is still not ready to embrace the notion that fitness comes in a variety of forms and sizes,” he explained.

Traditional African beauty highlights a woman’s curved and voluptuous shape, which is considered curvaceous among African heritage cultures. Many young people from ethnic minorities don’t look like the white women depicted in popular media since they don’t share their phenotype or culture. To avoid comparing themselves to White media representations, some girls of color may instead strive for standards of beauty that are more appropriate to their own cultural contexts. African American women, in particular, have provided some evidence to back up this claim in research. African American females and girls perceive mainstream media images to be less appealing and personable than their Caucasian counterparts.

Nonetheless, some individuals are under pressure to adhere to popular beauty norms and may feel self-conscious about their own bodies when compared to media depictions. In summary, while girls and women of color who identify strongly with their ethnic/racial group may avoid comparisons to Caucasian media images, girls and women of color who identify less strongly with their ethnic/racial group may compare themselves to Caucasian women in media. As a result, it is reasonable to speculate that ethnic identification may similarly protect young people of color from body image challenges. Indeed, research with African American women suggests that ethnic identification may perform a protective role.

Unlike the prevailing slim body image, Latina women have defined a “feminine curves” body ideal. It is possible that Latino culture values a “buen cuerpo,” or a “thick” ideal, which includes a slim waist, huge breasts, and hips as well as around behind, as opposed to the thin ideal of a thin body. In contrast, increasing acculturation into mainstream American society may drive Latinas to consider the overly thin body ideal depicted in mainstream media.

Asian cultures continue to integrate into a globalized and Westernized world that promotes cultural ideals of slimness but also maintains a non-Western traditional society – particularly the younger generation – which receives ideals of beauty from both the Western and their own culture and traditions. Young people may face significant conflict as a result of these disparate cultural ideals. Japan by far has the highest rate of body dissatisfaction. Japanese female teenagers ages 6-13 and 16-18 have a poor impression of their bodies and a strong desire to be skinny, regardless of their actual weight. Due to the fact that both sets of standards encourage people to be thin in distinct ways and for distinct reasons, the detrimental impact on Japanese adolescents’ body image may be greater than in other nations.

Greene, S. B. (2011). Body Image: Perceptions, Interpretations and Attitudes. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy, and Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber. The Cult of Thinness. Oxford Unviersity Press, 2007.

Fujioka, Y., Ryan, E., Agle, M., Legaspi, M., & Toohey, R. (2009). The role of racial identity in responses to thin media ideals: Differences between White and Black college women. Communication Research, 36, 451-474. doi: 10.1177/0093650209333031

Poran, M. A. (2006). The politics of protection: Body image, social pressures, and the
misrepresentation of young Black women. Sex Roles, 55, 739-755. doi: 10.1007/s11199-006-9129-5

de Casanova, E. M. (2004). ‘No ugly woman’: Concepts of race and beauty among adolescent women in Ecuador. Gender & Society, 18, 287-308. doi: 10.1177/0891243204263351

Schooler, Deborah, and Elizabeth A. Daniels. “‘I Am Not a Skinny Toothpick and Proud of It’: Latina Adolescents’ Ethnic Identity and Responses to Mainstream Media Images.” Body Image, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014, pp. 11–18., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2013.09.001.


Why is depression more prevalent in females?

Depression is more common among females (5.1%) than males (3.6%). Women are nearly twice more likely to be diagnosed with depression compared to men. The etiology of depression appears to differ, with women more typically exhibiting internalizing symptoms and males experiencing externalizing symptoms.[1] In a study of dizygotic twins, for example, women were more sensitive to interpersonal interactions, whereas men were more sensitive to external professional and goal-oriented factors.[2]Women also encounter specific types of depression-related illnesses, such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression, and postmenopausal depression and anxiety, which are linked to ovarian hormone changes and may contribute to the increased frequency in women. The fact that increased depression prevalence correlates with hormonal changes in women, particularly around adolescence, before menstruation, after pregnancy, and during perimenopause, implies that female hormonal oscillations may be a trigger for depression.[3]

Unequal power and status

Regrettably, this is a man’s world. Not only do women have to go to work like men, but they may also be expected to shoulder the burden of running a household, raising children, caring for elderly relatives, and putting up with sexism. Furthermore, we must be concerned not only about our children and families, but also about the rising occurrence of sexual harassment. According to research, nearly a third of women working in traditionally male-dominated trades in the United States said they were sexually harassed frequently or always. A poll was carried out involving 9408 adults(51 percent men and 49 percent women) in eight countries (Australia, Ecuador, Egypt, India, South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam), roughly a quarter of men surveyed said, “It is sometimes or always acceptable for an employer to ask or expect an employee to have intimate relations such as sex with them.” Thirty-nine percent of Indian men polled believed it was okay to wolf-whistle or cat-call a colleague on occasion, if not usually. “It is sometimes or always appropriate to pinch a colleague’s bottom in jest,” said 36% of 25-34-year-olds in the United Kingdom. In the United States, “44% of men aged 18-34 stated that expressing a sexual joke to a coworker is sometimes or always acceptable.”[4] Why is society failing to effectively condemn violence against women?

Sociocultural Reinforcements for example “…the ideology of men’s entitlement and privilege over women, social norms regarding masculinity, and the need to assert male control or power, enforce gender roles or prevent, discourage or punish what is considered to be unacceptable female behavior”

CEDAW, 2017, para. 19

This belief system consists of deeply ingrained attitudes, values, conventions, and prejudices against women that serve to perpetuate men’s dominance over women. Unconscious prejudice has a negative impact on women’s autonomy and integrity at work, and is linked to societal gender stereotypes, which can impede women’s professional advancement and most especially contribute to emotional distress.

Cultural factors

Women’s greater rates of depression aren’t only related to biology. Cultural stresses play a role, particularly in developing nations where gender roles are ingrained. Western societies are fortunate in that they seek for equality in women’s rights. In South Asia, the widespread impact of boy preference is predominant. Wife battering and female suicide have been connected to women’s reproductive roles, including their expected role of having children, the repercussions of infertility, and the failure to generate a male child.[5]

The majority of societies are patriarchal in nature. People typically believe that “girls are born to be fed for the rest of their life” and “boys are destined to earn and support the entire family.” A newborn boy’s birth is celebrated, whereas a baby girl’s birth is frowned upon. In some rural areas of India, the situation is even worse, with girls being denied their right to live. In India, sex selection during pregnancy is still widespread, where women are forced to terminate a female fetus. In one of the rural areas of India, it happened that, when a woman returned home from the hospital with her newborn daughter cradled in her arms, her mother-in-law mashed a poisonous coriander into a dollop of oil and pushed it down the infant’s throat. The explanation for this was that sacrificing a girl ensured a male in the future pregnancy.[6]

Evidently, a woman born in this region is unwanted, and if she isn’t killed, she suffers the repercussions and is vulnerable to all of society’s rage. I’m curious, people that hold the believe that they matter more than others–particularly due to differences in gender, skin color, or sexual orientation, etc. If you possess such a mindset– Do you honestly believe you matter more than others? If so, why?

Some countries still hold ancient traditions and customs that promote various sorts of violence against women. These include honor murders, exchange marriages, Quran weddings, Karo-kari, bride price, dowry, female circumcision, doubting women’s ability to testify, confinement to the home, and denial of their right to choose their partner are examples of these practices. If you’re reading this and you don’t live in a culture like this, first-off, consider yourself fortunate; second, imagine living in such a society for a moment. What emotions come to mind when you think about it? According to a study conducted in Pakistan, pressure from husbands and in-laws was the root cause for women to commit suicide. Sad to say, the system in these societies accepts these atrocious acts. There is no way out for this female, and law enforcers are usually hesitant to intervene because they refer the situation as a domestic conflict. Furthermore, women’s mental health is frequently neglected[6].

Let’s discuss female genital mutilation. It entails the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Bare in mind that this practice has no health benefits whatsoever. WHO mentions that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated. This practice is carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15. Culture is all fine and dandy until its norms become a violation of human rights. This is beyond anomalous and deviant. FGM is an extreme violation of the human rights of girls and women. It is an extreme kind of prejudice against women, and it represents deep-rooted gender inequity. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also breaches a person’s right to health, security, and physical integrity, as well as the right to be free of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and also the right to life if the process results in death. For the societies that perform FGM, it is considered a vital element of raising a girl in preparation for adulthood and marriage. It is thought to assist a woman resist extramarital sexual acts by ensuring premarital virginity, marital fidelity, and libido.[7] In simple terms, this is depriving women of their sexual pleasure in order to fulfill men’s sexual pleasures. I’m not sure about the females reading this, but I’m enraged.

As a woman writing this, my emotions are indescribably torturous- I have failed to articulate the right words that express the current feelings about this. All these acts, dehumanize girls and women. They rob them of their individuality. They deny girls and women their right to emotions. Because society owns every part of you, they strip you of your dreams, imagination, creativity, and expression. They undoubtedly provoke suicidal thoughts, and many succeed since it is the only way out of the awful reality into which they were born. They deprive women of their right to exist.

No wonder, depression is prevalent more in women than men. Women are simply attempting to navigate this man-made world; Striving for equal rights hoping they will prevail not only in western societies but also, developing nations. Most importantly, the females aim to retain their sanity while contending for equality.


[1]Bartels M, Cacioppo JT, van Beijsterveldt TC, et al.Exploring the association between well-being and psychopathology in adolescents.Behav Genet 2013;43:177–90.

[2]Kendler KS, Gardner CO.Sex differences in the pathways to major depression: a study of opposite-sex twin pairs.Am J Psychiatry 2014;171:426–35.

[3]Albert, Paul R. “Why Is Depression More Prevalent in Women?” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience : JPN, vol. 40, no. 4, July 2015, pp. 219–221. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1503/jpn.150205.

[4]Gendered Power Inequalities, https://www.endvawnow.org/es/articles/1930-gendered-power-inequalities-.html.

[5]Validate User, https://academic.oup.com/bmb/article/57/1/33/301595.

[6]Niaz, Unaiza, and Sehar Hassan. “Culture and Mental Health of Women in South-East Asia.” World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), Masson Italy, June 2006, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1525125/.

[7]“Female Genital Mutilation.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation.