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.

References
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.

Body Image

Throughout our childhoods, we are exposed to a wide range of absurdities, and these experiences shape our views of what is and isn’t acceptable. We take up on what society has essentially established as right or wrong. We are subconsciously influenced by society’s standards and norms. Body image differs according to society. Many of us internalize messages about body image beginning in childhood, which can result in either a favorable or negative body image.

Concerns over one’s body image frequently begin at an early age and could last a lifetime. By age 6, girls begin to show concerns about their personal weight and shape–expressing anxiety about their weight or risk of becoming obese. Additionally, nearly half of adolescent females and nearly a third of adolescent males engage in hazardous weight-loss habits such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives. It’s crucial to remember that each person’s experience with body image issues is unique, thus the onset age might vary widely.

What does body image mean?

The term “body image” refers to the collection of ideas and emotions about one’s body. Body image experiences can range from favorable to negative, and an individual may feel positive, negative, or a combination of the two at various times. Internal and external elements both influence body image. Your perceptual body image is how you perceive your body. This is not necessarily an accurate depiction of your true appearance. Your affective body image is how you feel about your body. While feelings can range from delight to disgust, they are sometimes summarized as your level of contentment or discontent with your shape, weight, and individual body parts. A person’s mental representation of their body is known as their cognitive body image. This might result in an obsession with one’s body shape and weight. Behavioral body image refers to the actions that you take because of your body image. When a person is unhappy with their looks, they may isolate themselves or engage in unhealthy behaviors in order to alter their appearance.

Positive body image means having a clear, accurate view of your shape; perceiving the various aspects of your body for what they truly are. Accepting one’s natural body shape and size and realizing that appearances have little bearing on one’s character or value as a person are all components of body positivity (or body pleasure). In contrast, having a skewed view of one’s body shape is indicative of having a negative body image. Feelings of shame, anxiety and self-consciousness accompany negative body image (or body dissatisfaction). Negative body image can also arise as a result of weight stigma, muscularity, sexual functionality, scars, noticeable face or physical differences, handicap, or changes in the body as a result of medical treatments or disease.

Individuals who have a high level of dissatisfaction with their bodies believe their bodies are imperfect in contrast to others, and these individuals are more likely to experience depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia aren’t caused by a single thing, but research has shown that body dissatisfaction is the most common factor in the development of both.

Body dissatisfaction

When a person has chronic negative thoughts and feelings about their body, this is referred to as body dissatisfaction. Although dissatisfaction with one’s looks is an internal emotional and cognitive process, it is influenced by external influences such as pressure to conform to a particular appearance ideal. Dissatisfaction with one’s appearance can motivate individuals to engage in unhealthy weight-control behaviors, most notably disordered eating. As a result, they are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. It is worth noting, however, that the majority of people who have body image problems or dissatisfaction do not have eating disorders, and some people who do have eating disorders do not have body image concerns.

In Westernized countries, body image dissatisfaction has become a major concern for adolescent health. More than 60 percent of females and 30 percent of males in the United States suffer from body dissatisfaction, which is a particular focus for adolescent health practitioners. In the 1980s, researchers around the world began studying the impact of a negative body image on eating disorders. Since then, the amount of research on body image has expanded tremendously. Many of these studies reveal that the type and degree of body image problems vary according to characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity, peers, family, personal experiences, and socio-cultural influences. These studies provide a good starting point for further research. Women in Western cultures appear to be at the greatest danger, while those in non-Western cultures appear to be at the lowest risk, albeit this is more owing to a lack of relevant studies than a scientific conclusion.

A person is said to have a positive body image if they can accept, enjoy, and respect their physical appearance. You can feel unsatisfied with some elements of your body, but still, be able to accept it for what it is. This is not body contentment. In order to maintain a healthy body image, it is important to recognize and avoid the artificial and unattainable ideals of beauty and thinness depicted in the media. A healthy body image does not ensure good mental or physical health, but it can provide a protective barrier against poor self-esteem, disordered eating behaviors or yo-yo dieting, and, perhaps, other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphic disorder.

It’s becoming more and more common for people of various sexes, ages, genders, ethnicities, abilities, etc., to embrace their bodies as they are. Body variety must be embraced and all bodies recognized as valuable. In order to cultivate a healthy body image, it is important to understand and respect one’s natural shape, and then replace negative thoughts with positive ones that are affirming and accepting.

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

“Body Image & Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-eating-disorders.

Body Image. (n.d.). Body Image. https://nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/body-image/.

Schizophrenia across different cultures

Kraepelin was the first to raise the topic of whether schizophrenia is a universal condition in 1960. Is it possible for it to happen to anyone or even different populations, cohorts, and cultures? According to the findings of the World Health Organization’s research conducted in 20 nations, Schizophrenia can affect anyone, regardless of their age, ethnicity, gender, or geographic location. [1] Even though the outcome of schizophrenia appears to be better in developing countries compared to developed countries, the reasons for this are not fully understood; however, it can be safely assumed that culturally determined processes, whether social or environmental in nature, are at least partially responsible. [2]

The pattern for most diseases is clear: the richer and more developed the country, the better the patient outcome. Schizophrenia appears to be different. This paradox first came to light 40 years ago. For further research, in the 1960s, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the first of the following three landmark international studies: the International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia (IPSS); the Determinants of Outcomes of Severe Mental Disorders (DOSMeD); and the International Study of Schizophrenia (ISoS).

The IPSS included 1,202 patients from nine countries, three developing (Colombia, India, and Nigeria) and six developed (Denmark, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia). The patients’ outcomes were rated from one (best) to seven (worst) based on three factors: time with psychotic symptoms, remission after each episode, and social impairment (worst). After five years, India had the most success, with 42% of cases reporting the “best” outcomes, followed by Nigeria with 33%. However, only 17% of cases in the US and less than 10% in other wealthy countries had the best outcomes.

In the early 1980s, DoSMeD began studying schizophrenia in 12 centers in 10 countries. From a single psychotic episode to a chronic illness, its 1379 patients fell into nine categories. The study found that 37% of underdeveloped countries had complete recovery compared to 15% of developed countries. Chronic illness rates were 11.1% in the developing world and 17.4% in the developed. Patients in developing countries had longer periods of normal social functioning despite taking fewer antipsychotics. The researchers discovered that a powerful element called ‘culture’ can influence gene-environment interactions that cause disease. The present study does not answer the question but simply states that it exists. To see if the prior studies’ better outcomes persisted, the ISoS trial added two more groups of IPSS and DOSMeD patients after 15 and 25 years. It found that half of the patients had positive outcomes.[3]

According to a 2009 assessment by psychiatrist Parmanand Kulhara of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, 58 schizophrenia papers were examined in order to compare outcomes across industrialized and developing countries. The explanation doesn’t make any more sense. As Kulhara points out, “patients appear to be doing better in impoverished nations, even while resources such as health facilities and medical infrastructure are severely constrained,” including treatment facilities and treatment facilities. This could be attributed to the fact that developing countries have a different socio-cultural environment, with a larger reliance on family members for care and assistance, as well as stronger social support and social networking.[4]

If you ever found yourself on the verge of going insane, a supportive network like this would do everything possible to help you regain your composure. 

So does this imply that the greater the amount of support available, the more likely it is that someone suffering from schizophrenia will be able to improve? Perhaps. If you compare developing nations to developed nations, which are known for their individualistic cultures, developing countries are known for their collectivist cultures. To be clear, collectivist cultures place a higher value on the needs of a group or community than they do on the needs of an individual, whereas individual cultures are the polar opposite. As a result, a problem that affects one person affects everyone else.

Most developing countries have limited or no resources, as well as little or no awareness of mental health issues, but the good news is that they have each other. They are extremely supportive of one another, which is amusing because it is not necessarily because they want to, but rather because it is ingrained in cultural norms. And that is the most potent force they have; they either prosper or perish together. If you ever found yourself on the verge of going insane, a supportive network like this would do everything possible to help you regain your composure. Perhaps there is little time for one’s own thoughts because they are predominantly occupied by the group. A patient’s ability to maintain a satisfactory social support system is directly related to reduced hospitalization and re-admission to the hospital among those suffering from schizophrenia. Patients who have a larger network of people who care about them spend less time in the hospital and perform better on tests and assessments.

References

[1] Jablensky, A, and N Sartorius. “Is schizophrenia universal?.” Acta psychiatrica Scandinavica. Supplementum vol. 344 (1988): 65-70. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.1988.tb09003.x

[2] Kulhara, P, and S Chakrabarti. “Culture and schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.” The Psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 24,3 (2001): 449-64. doi:10.1016/s0193-953x(05)70240-9

[3] Padma, T. V. “Developing Countries: The Outcomes Paradox.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 2 Apr. 2014, http://www.nature.com/articles/508S14a.

[4] Parmanand Kulhara, Ruchita Shah, Sandeep Grover, Is the course and outcome of schizophrenia better in the ‘developing’ world?,Asian Journal of Psychiatry,Volume 2, Issue 2, 2009, Pages 55-62, ISSN 1876-2018, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajp.2009.04.003.
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1876201809000306)

What about culture and mental health?

I once picked up three flowers while out shopping with a friend, who then inquired as to why I chose three flowers. I told her there was no reason; I just felt like three different colored flowers. She explained that in her culture, “three flowers implies someone has died, or perhaps an odd number of flowers means bad luck,” and she went on to explain the meanings of the various colors I chose. I was baffled and inquired about the reasons behind it. This moment intrigued me so much that I thought about it for the following few days—how diverse we are all, how we all have different perspectives on the world and each with our own set of reasons.

Culture is a collective identity shaped by social patterns, norms, rituals, beliefs, values, laws, knowledge, the arts, and behaviors. By the time we reach adulthood, our culture has mostly become unconscious. Culture has an impact on how we communicate with others, as well as how we interpret what they are saying. We also have a delusional belief that everyone perceives things the same way we do. Furthermore, we tend believe that our culture is superior to that of others, or that it is the correct way to conduct things. I’m looking at the core, or possibly the roots. In order to understand the origins, meanings, and effects of mental illness, I’m looking at it from a sociocultural perspective. What does mental health mean in different cultures?

What does mental health mean in different cultures?

Tradition and religion are highly valued in Hispanic Latino communities. There are strong gender roles and gender-based coping styles, for example, severe psychiatric symptoms may be seen as a sign of weakness for men, while women may feel pressured to cope with severe symptoms within the family rather than seek outside therapy. Machismo, a traditional Latino ethic, fosters the repression of emotion and the projection of strength and self-reliance, as well as the acceptance of the position of family provider and protector. Mariansimo, on the other hand, is a traditional Latina value that urges women to be accomondating, submissive, and family-centered. Mariansimo also encourages women to take on the family’s suffering with dignity. Mental illness is seen as a reflection of shame and embarrassment in the family, thus if someone is an outlier, they are explicitly told to remain hidden from the public eye. Since family matters are not disclosed to the outside world, the family tends to keep mentally unstable relatives concealed from the community.

Mental illness is considered a trivial, transient condition; people with mental disorders are often told to “simply get over it” or “slip out of it,” and are also seen as attention seekers. They’ve been labeled as insane. Latinos (particularly females and less acculturated Latinos) are also more inclined to somaticize mental health problems, according to research. Hispanics/Latinos are primarily Catholic. Mental illness is regarded as a misfortune. In the context of religious affiliation– It is linked to sin in the sense that those who are mentally ill believe it is due to a lack of religious faith. As a result, if the individual had more faith and did believe, they would not be sick. Alternatively, if they corrected their wicked ways, the illness would be lifted from them.[1]

Studies have been conducted on mental health and Asian culture. Amongst the participants, were Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos. A significant proportion of participants linked mental illness to a “loss of purpose in life.” Some participants compared mental illnesses to insanity; one participant said that having a mentally sick person in the family was like having a mad person at home. The participant went on to remark that it’s best to avoid such people because there’s no way to get rid of them. They are in a state at which this person is suffering is beyond help. In some Asian cultures, some people view mental illness as somatic illness [2]

Mental illness is associated with superstitious or supernatural origins in Filipino culture, such as God’s will, witchcraft, and sorcery, which runs counter to the biopsychosocial model utilized by mental health experts. Filipinos prefer to seek aid from traditional folk healers who use religious rites in their healing process rather than seek professional help in this cultural environment. Participants in one study corroborated this, saying that “psychiatrists are not a means to deal with emotional disorders.” They also perceive mental illness as a transient affliction brought on by the cold or as a character flaw that must be conquered on an individual basis. The notion that mental illness is a test of faith and perseverance is related to the high spirituality and religious affinities.[3]

“In some cases it is believed that the loss of one’s soul can further weaken one’s body and lead to a state of confusion”

Haque A [4]

In other cultures for instance the Vietnamese, mental illness is attributed to fate or punishment from the dead caused by malevolence and misfortune placed on an individual for misdeeds that angered his/her ancestors. Other widely held indigenous ideas on mental illness are based on the idea of harmony and balance among the universe’s material and non-material entities. Mental disorders are also defined as a discord in the cosmic energies that surround an individual’s physical body and surroundings, as well as an imbalance in one’s interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, it is believed that a balanced flow of energy maintains one’s body balance, and that stagnation in the flow of energy and motion might affect one’s mental and physical health.[5]

In west African cultures, they perceive mental disorders as a taboo. They believe that someone is cursed or possessed by evil spirits and for that reason, your whole family is doomed or perhaps the person suffering from the mental disorder is believed to have brought bad omen into the family. Most Africans have a natural Affinity towards the supernatural. [6] In South Sudan, they believe that a person can become mentally ill from stealing something therefore it is attributed to spiritual revenge- spirits from the mountain, the waters or from the thick forests. In some cases, when a family buys a goat or cow, the animal may be possessed by a spirit that would most likely cause illness to someone in the family; as a result, the family must slaughter an animal to show respect to the spirit.[7]

In Uganda, “Locally people say Mulalu, which literally means you’re mad, you’re useless” says Jimmy Odoki, who also has bipolar disorder. “Where I come from people say ‘that one he’s a walking dead‘.” according to the BBC. 

There is a difference between being ignorant about something i.e. (you have never heard that perspective before) and being aware but still choosing otherwise from that point of view of the world. Some of these cultures, seem to choose otherwise. Nonetheless, others seem to lack awareness and resources for mental health. How does your culture apprehend mental health?

Funny story– When I use chapsticks with my friends during hot pot, I always forget and place them straight up in the dish, but the good thing is that they constantly remind me, so I adapt. When I asked why I shouldn’t place the chapstick as I did, one of them said it was a sign of disrespect in Asian culture. I mean, it clearly doesn’t mean anything to me, but it certainly does in another culture—I had so many irritating inquiries that followed mostly for insight, but I recognized that fact. Culture is awe-inspiring.

References

[1] Etd.ohiolink.edu. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=toledo1449868982&disposition=inline.

[2] Web.unbc.ca. https://web.unbc.ca/~lih/Mental%20Health.PDF.

[3] Martinez, Andrea B., et al. “Filipino Help-Seeking for Mental Health Problems and Associated Barriers and Facilitators: A Systematic Review.” Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, vol. 55, no. 11, Nov. 2020, pp. 1397–1413. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s00127-020-01937-2.

[4] Haque, A. 2008. Culture-bound syndromes and healing practices in Malaysia. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11: 685–696

[5] Nguyen, HannahThuy, et al. “Religious Leaders’ Assessment and Attribution of the Causes of Mental Illness: An in-Depth Exploration of Vietnamese American Buddhist Leaders.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, vol. 15, no. 5, June 2012, pp. 511–527. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/13674676.2011.594037.

[6] Ventevogel, Peter, et al. “Madness or Sadness? Local Concepts of Mental Illness in Four Conflict-Affected African Communities.” Conflict and Health, BioMed Central, 18 Feb. 2013, https://conflictandhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1752-1505-7-3.

[7] Culture, Chic African. “Mental Illness in Africa Taboos.” African Cultures Express, Encourage, and Communicate Energy, Blogger, 20 Mar. 2021, https://www.theafricangourmet.com/2018/12/epidemic-of-mental-illness-in-africa.html.