Harvard Study Links TV to Eating Disorders in Fiji

In traditional Fijian culture, round, robust figures have long been the standard for beauty. Now new cultural forces, including the introduction of Western television shows, seem to be changing that.

A team of researchers from the Eating Disorders Center of Harvard Medical School led by Anne E. Becker recently completed a three-year study of Fijian girls’ body images and eating habits. The results have not yet been published, but were presented Wednesday at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, D.C.

Researchers conducted their first interviews in 1995, when they surveyed 63 secondary school girls. In 1998, they chose another set of 65 girls from the same schools and asked them the same questions. Researchers also took steps to insure that the 1995 and 1998 interviewees were similar in age, weight, and other characteristics. The 1995 interviews took place 1 month after satellites began sending television programs to the region.

Researchers found that the percentage of girls who had induced vomiting to control their weight increased by 12% – from 3% to 15% – from 1995 to 1998. The percentage of girls who showed other indicators of risk for eating disorders also increased substantially — from 13% to 29%. In 1995, very few girls talked about dieting and many seemed confused by the notion. In 1998, 69% said they had dieted at some point in their lives.

In the 1998 study, the girls who watched television on three or more nights each week were 50% more likely to describe themselves as unhappy with the size or shape of their bodies or to describe themselves as “too fat.” These same girls were also 30% more likely than girls who watched less television to diet.

Several of the girls told interviewers that they wished to emulate the women they saw in Western television shows. The characters from FOX Television’s “Melrose Place,” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” were mentioned by name.

In related news, a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders argued that boys who play with super-muscular action figures may develop unrealistic body images, prompting them to use steroids or to engage in “compulsive” weight-lifting.

In particular, the study noted how the “G.I. Joe” and “Star Wars” action figures have changed since they were first released decades ago. Researchers noted that the 1978 version of Luke Skywalker was “boyish” as compared to a super-muscular mid-1990’s version, in which the doll had chiseled, exposed pectoral muscles, thick thighs, and a small, chiseled waist.

The G.I. Joe doll sold in the 1960s had biceps that were normal in size (about 11.5 inches) when scaled to human dimensions. In contrast, the biceps of 1997’s “G.I. Joe Extreme” doll would be a whopping 26 inches when scaled for proportion — a size that has not been achieved even by top bodybuilders.

Interestingly, the manufacturer of the “pumped-up” Luke Skywalker and G.I. Joe action figures reported that they hadn’t sold well. Hasbro Inc. spokesperson Wayne Charness commented that kids “didn’t like them” and that collectors “didn’t think they were realistic-looking.” In response, Charness says his company “reacted accordingly” and changed the dolls back to regular proportions.


New York Times - May 20, 1999

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