Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Thursday, May 20, 1999 Published at 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK


'TV brings eating disorders to Fiji'

The traditional Fijian form is a "robust, well-muscled body"

Fiji, a nation that has traditionally cherished the fuller figure, has been struck by an outbreak of eating disorders since the arrival of television in 1995, a study has shown.

The BBC's James Westhead: The concept of dieting was unknown in Fiji
Researchers from Harvard say the western images and values transmitted via the medium has led to an increase in disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

Anne Becker, an anthropologist at Harvard Medical School, has studied Fijian eating habits since 1988.

[ image: Anne Becker: Alarming proportion of teenagers on diets]
Anne Becker: Alarming proportion of teenagers on diets
She compared the arrival of television with the arrival of British explorers in the last century.

"What I hope is that this isn't like the 19th century, when the British came to Fiji and brought the measles with them. It was a tremendous plague," she said.

"One could speculate that in the 20th century, television is another pathogen exporting Western images and values," she said.

'Programming influences teens'

Fiji has one television station, which broadcasts programmes from the UK, US and New Zealand such as Seinfeld, ER, Melrose Place and Xena: Warrior Princess.

[ image: Programmes full of slim role models may have an effect]
Programmes full of slim role models may have an effect
In 1998 - 38 months after the station went on air - Ms Becker conducted a survey of teenage girls and found that 74% of them felt they were "too big or fat".

Ms Becker said there had been a sharp rise in indicators of disordered eating, such as induced vomiting.

She said 15% of the girls reported they had vomited to control weight.

The traditional Fijian preference for the build of both sexes has been a "robust, well-muscled body" for both sexes, she said.

Ranadi Johnston - who holds the Miss Fiji beauty queen title, said slim women were tradionally seen as weak.

"People are always telling me to put on weight," she said.

'Major impact'

The impact of television on a Pacific island that has only had electricity since 1985 was significant, she said, as adolescent girls became more aware of Western ideals of beauty.

[ image: Ranadi Johnston:
Ranadi Johnston: "People keep telling me to put on weight"
"Nobody was dieting in Fiji 10 years ago," Ms Becker said. "An alarmingly high percentage of adolescents are dieting now."

She said a study showed that a higher proportion of adolescents in Fiji were dieting than in Massachusetts.

"The teenagers see TV as a model for how one gets by in the modern world. They believe the shows depict reality."

Many groups say the world-wide increase in eating disorders is down to the prevalence of images equating a slim figure with beauty.

But some doctors have questioned whether such disorders are caused by culture or are transmitted from generation to generation in genes.

A study on the Caribbean island of Curacao, where fat is considered attractive, found the incidence of anorexia was equal to that in Europe.

Link to television images

Nicky Bryant, chief executive of the Eating Disorders Association, said Ms Becker's study had implications for everyone.

Nicky Bryant: There is a relationship between media images and eating disorders
"Research has shown there is a relationship between television and the development of an eating disorder, although there are many other factors," she said.

"With low self-esteem - which is associated with eating disorders - people will be trying to assume a low body weight or a slim image, which can lead to an eating disorder."

She advised anyone who was concerned about an eating disorder to contact the association or see their GP.

"The earlier an eating disorder is detected, the better is the chance of recovery," she said.

[ image: Nicky Bryant: Implications for all]
Nicky Bryant: Implications for all
A 1993 World Health Organisation report found that the Fiji suffered extremes of nutritional problems.

It said: "Obesity is an emerging health problem, which can be presently observed in children.

"However, under-nutrition has been around for over a decade and still exists with 15 percent of children under the age of five having a weight and age ratio below international standards.

"Fijian babies are undernourished at an early stage, while malnutrition in Indo-Fijian children appears at a later stage."

Ms Becker presented her findings at the American Psychiatric Association in Washington on Wednesday.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Health Contents

Background Briefings
Medical notes

Relevant Stories

21 Jan 99 | Health
Genetic clues to eating disorders

06 Oct 98 | Medical notes
Anorexia factfile

08 Jul 98 | Latest News
Media slammed over superthin models

27 Nov 97 | World
Fiji faces fat crisis

Internet Links

Internet Fiji

Eating Disorders Association

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Disability in depth

Spotlight: Bristol inquiry

Antibiotics: A fading wonder

Mental health: An overview

Alternative medicine: A growth industry

The meningitis files

Long-term care: A special report

Aids up close

From cradle to grave

NHS reforms: A guide

NHS Performance 1999

From Special Report
NHS in crisis: Special report

British Medical Association conference '99

Royal College of Nursing conference '99