From the Archive: Eating Disorders Amongst Japanese Women

In our “From the Archive” series, we revisit an article published in past issues of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry. This week, we’re highlighting a piece on eating disorders in Japan, originally featured in our December 2004 issue.

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Kathleen Pike and Amy Borovoy’s article “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Japan: Issues of Culture and Limitations of the Model of ‘Westernization'” makes a poignant case for the importance of context when examining eating disorders across the world. In this piece, they argue that studies of eating disorders abroad have often attributed the etiology of these illnesses to an increasing visibility and presence of Western beauty standards that accompany the spread of new technologies, medias, and communication tools. While Western beauty ideals have been problematically exported to the non-Western and developing worlds in other cases, Pike and Borovoy suggest that this model does not account for the experience of eating disorders in Japan.

Westernization and modernization, they note, are two distinct processes: and Japan, which has developed economically but retained many of its traditional social roles, exemplifies this difference. Modernization is the process of economic and technological development as a nation shifts from traditional to modern (often, mechanized). Westernization may be defined as the process of integrating the lifestyle, values, and experiences of Western cultures into the fabric of society, especially during periods of modernization and economic change.

Despite the drive for modernization, Japanese women are still expected to be homemakers and mothers rather than career women in the new economy. The Japanese have not adopted the individualistic and feministic sensibilities of the Western world, and the domestic burden– both caring for the home and children, and tending to older family members– squarely falls upon wives and mothers. This creates enormous stress for young women, who wish to extend their adolescent years and savor the freedom between childhood and their adult lives, as defined by marrying and becoming a homemaker. Modernization allows young Japanese women to obtain jobs, travel widely, and earn an education, but traditional social roles do not create a space for women to enjoy such a designated period of freedom without familial commitment. The inevitability of domestic life, then, is ever-present in the lives of women who yearn for fewer responsibilities– even if just for a time. This creates feelings of distress, unease, or unhappiness in many young women.

Pike and Borovoy observe that Japanese women do not reject food (anorexic behavior) or induce vomiting (bulimic behavior) out of a desire for thinness or due to fat phobia, as women with eating disorders almost universally experience in Western nations. Rather, Japanese women stress that they reject food because it worsens their digestive complaints, which are connected to the anxiety and stress they feel out of dissatisfaction with their social role (or lack thereof.) The tension between women’s expected social functions, and their desire to live and work in some other way, therefore spurs disordered eating within this broader frame of mental distress.

As we see, women’s experiences of Japanese eating disorders are entwined in the fabric of traditional social life, and not rooted exclusively in imported ideas of the body, independence, and individualism per the Western way of life. Indeed, the non-fat phobic symptomatology of eating disorders reflects the essential differences between Japanese women with eating disorders and their peers in Western nations. The study highlights the centrality of culture in studies of mental illness, and the way that these conditions emerge out of a local social world.


To find the full article online, click here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-004-1066-6

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