How the Girls in Fiji Lost Their Groove

07/31/2007 06:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

They do it even in remote island villages.

In my last blog, several people who posed comments asked if the U.S. was the only country suffering eating disorders.

Here's my answer:

In Sigatoka, Fiji, eating disorders have emerged from, literally, nothing.

According to anthropologist Anne Becker, before 1995, no eating disorders existed on the island, excepting one murky case of anorexia. The Polynesian island meandered along under balmy eating-disorder-clear skies for 3,000 years, as villagers proudly displayed their large brown bodies, built to a size we would label obese. But in Fiji, the bigger the body, the more the love.

Then, in 1995, it all changed. The village chief permitted television.

In three short years, the percentage of girls who vomited to control their weight rose from none to 11 percent. Almost a third wanted to diet, vomit, or exercise excessively because they suddenly hated their beautiful bodies.

The majority, 83 percent of the girls, blamed their change in attitude on the media.

"Now we are feeling, we feel that it is bad to have this huge body," one 16-year-old Fijian told Becker.


Assimilation. As the U.S. continues to assert its superpower status, developing countries get our exports -- including eating disorders.

Fijians are experiencing a major transition; they are moving from an agrarian to a more industrialized, tourism-based economy. They want jobs and capital. They got Beverly Hills 90210, Xena the Warrior Princess, ads for Slim Fast, and the like.

Eating disorders are triggered by major transitions. These can happen on a personal as well as cultural level. Fijian girls, under stress to find a new way of subsisting, are taking their island's "growing pains" out on their bodies.

"I want to be like Xena so that I can protect myself by getting all those manly skills," another Fijian girl confided. "When I come across some kind of different, difficult situations, I can just use them in order to defend myself."

And so a TV character has become an icon, the role model of how to effectively move and maneuver in a shifting world.

Fijians are not alone. A scan of the medical literature shows eating disorders and body image problems cropping up in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand; Croatia, Sweden, and Israel; Mexico, Brazil, China, Japan, Ghana, and South Africa. Even the Sultanate of Oman. Potentially hundreds of millions of individuals are getting hit by a worldwide eating disorder epidemic. We'll call it the World Wide "ED," for short.

Tragically, the trend is likely to continue until we find a balance of power between our culture and others, men and women and also, the values of material wealth and asceticism.

Closer to home, we seeing this same phenomenon in cultures within our own borders: Native Americans, Puerto Rican immigrants and African Americans are also getting hit. So are immigrants to other industrialized nations, including African-Caribbeans living in Britain and Chinese in Australia. The idea was that a native culture that lacks a thinness imperative will protect a girl from dieting, bingeing and/or purging to try and slim down. But that "immunity" is eroding as western cultural forces continue to dominate others.

As individuals and entire countries assimilate, those who trade the protective values of their mother culture for the thinness-at-all-costs, survival of the fittest (and therefore leanest), trademarked by the U.S., are most at risk for getting sick.

Nobody with access to mass media or the Net is immune.