The Effects of Media on East African Women

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
November/December 2007 Volume 18, Number 6
©2007 Gürze Books

Cross-cultural research has generally indicated that eating disorders are most prevalent in Western and industrialized nations, where thinness is a beauty ideal and food is abundant. When three psychologists studied a community sample of young Tanzanian females, they found that media exposure and travel abroad were positively associated with eating disorder symptoms (J Nerv Mental Dis. 2007; 195:196). This was the first study of eating disorders in Tanzania.

A group of 214 young Tanzanian women between 13 and 30 years of age completed Kiswahili versions of a DSM-IV eating disorders symptom clinical interview, the Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI), and a questionnaire on media exposure/globalization. The women represented 32 tribes from 20 locations throughout Tanzania.

More than a third of women were affected

More than a third of the women reported body image disturbances, and 20.9% reported being afraid of gaining weight. The same percentage endorsed body image disturbances, and 14.7% reported overvaluation. Binge eating and purging were less common: 9.8% of the women reported out-of-control binge eating at least once during the last month, and 5% admitted purging by self-induced vomiting at least once during the last month. Only 2%, none of whom were at a low body mass index (BMI) or using binge-purge behaviors, were amenorrheic. Four women met the criteria for anoxia nervosa, minus the amenorrhea criterion, and one met the criteria for purging bulimia nervosa. Further, 10 reported either regular out-of-control binge eating in the absence of purging, or regular episodes of self-induced vomiting in the absence of binge eating, along with one or more cognitive eating disorder symptoms, all consistent with eating disorders not otherwise specified, or EDNOS. Mean BMI for the group was 22.5; 10% had a BMI <17.5, not due to an illness, and 20% had BMIs >22.5.

Educational level

Only 1.9% of the women reported having no formal education, 9.3% had some primary school education, 43.3% reported completing elementary school, 23.7% reported having some secondary education; 12.6% had completed secondary school, 6.0% reported receiving an associate degree, and 2.3% had a university education. Forty-two percent were currently students, and of the remainder, 31.6% were farmers, 13% were in business, 3.7% were teachers, 1.7% were unemployed, and 8.0% worked in other industries.

Media exposure was common for half of the women

A third of the women reported having a television set or VCR in their homes, and many had general access to television (53.5%) and VCRs (47.4%). Most also read magazines and 34% regularly used the Internet.

The results of this study support observations from cross-cultural research suggesting that acculturation of Western ideals of thinness may contribute to the development of eating disorders in non-Western cultures. Eating disorders symptoms were most common among students. The study results also showed that eating disorder symptoms are definitely related to the degree of media exposure, as measured by the time spent viewing television and films, as well as use of the Internet.

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