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