Opinion: Asia’s obsession with food and beauty has a dark side

At a recent doctor’s visit, my endocrinologist reprimanded me for gaining two pounds. “You’re not fat” – I’m not even close – “but it’s something you have to look at,” he told me. I left the appointment of equal parts irritated and uncertain. It was not the first time I had seen this level of body language or my appearance since I had moved to Asia. When I was pregnant in Hong Kong, my Chinese teacher confirmed that I should have a boyfriend. “Boys give beauty to mothers, girls go with them,” she said. Some years later, my merchant in Singapore was relieved to learn that I was pregnant with my second child: “I thought you were just getting ***!”
This very attention to appearance comes next to the love of culture and food. Singaporeans often joke that they start arranging lunch as soon as breakfast is over, and “Have you eaten?” it is a common way to greet others. As one put it, aunts who encourage you to eat more are the first to tell you that ***.

Such socially competitive messages can be hard to balance at best times. Include isolation and anxiety of the Covid period, and it’s no surprise that eating disorders are a growing problem. However, these conditions are not well understood, and sufferers often believe that they do not need help, making diagnostic and therapeutic treatment unavailable. Despite all the positive talk about beauty, conversations about eating disorders, and general mental health, they can always be a part of many parts of Asia. In this age of social cessation, those gaps can be a matter of life or death.
For decades, the medical community believed that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia were a major factor in affecting white, rich, and educated young women. Globalization was considered a negative consequence of Westernization, a commercial of frozen McDonald’s French fries with culture of Kate Moss.

Recent research indicates that the theory is quite inaccurate. The best way to think about this disturbing practice is to develop it. Explaining the importance of overweight is the result of industrialization and the expansion of cities – the Western categories that reached pre-Asia – rather than the export of Western cultures, according to a 2015 review in the Journal of Eating Disorders. In other words, the lifestyle of economic aspirations – which keeps everything from office hours and bonuses, to daily actions taken and popular photos – should be blamed. If present, symptoms associated with an eating disorder may be more severe in South Korea, China and Thailand than in the U.S., the authors note. One telecommunications industry that swept across China in 2016, for example, challenged people to cover their waists with a straight piece of A4 paper, just over an inch [8 cm] wide.
In light of this, our era of Instagram’s escape screen has some troubling ingredients. The influencer du jour may be quick to post pictures of his turmeric juices, but certainly not a bag of chips he cut a scarf while looking for a deadline. Even those deep-chic selfies can be deceptive. Meitu, a Chinese app that allows you to do everything from reshaping your jaw to narrowing your nose, has 115 million monthly active users. Beauty apps and other products owned by this anonymous company have been made available to 2.2 billion unique devices worldwide. The health risks of the chosen dream existed before Covid, but they can stabilize us without encountering people who are not funny, physically, and so on.

What hurts more than social media, however, could be family power, according to Nishta Geetha Thevaraja, a senior psychologist at Singapore General Hospital. While researchers debate the genetic makeup of genetic causes, many doctors agree that families play a small role in the onset of an eating disorder. In Asia, where unwed teens are living with their parents, this can be a mistake. About 27% of Singapore’s households are families with the youngest member 16 years or older. During the two-month closure of the city government last year, some victims were trapped in a 600-square-meter nest of inactivity – threatening any weak medical efforts.
It is difficult to say how widespread these diseases are in Singapore, due to a lack of research. One study published late last year, cited the problem, found that 63% of participants were diagnosed with an eating disorder or were at high risk of acquiring one. Less than 2% of those in the former group reported currently being treated.

Worst figure: Anorexia nervosa, characterized by very limited diets, has a much higher rate of death from any mental disorder, according to the United States government, National Institute of Mental Health. Adding to the problem is that many cases go unreported or are exacerbated by other illnesses, including anxiety, depression and, for those who overeat, even diabetes, says Dawn Soo, Asia-Pacific medical director at Cigna International Markets. One study of university women in Singapore found that only 14% could accurately identify the symptoms of bulimia, which is characterized by eating too many foods and losing weight. About 40% refer to these qualities in low self-esteem.
That indicates treatment. Parents were unhappy with rehabilitation programs, citing limited health expert knowledge, a few explanations, poor communication and the apparent lack of medical empathy, among other things, according to a study of Chinese racist youth fighting anorexia in Hong Kong. Suggested strategies focus more on weight recovery, as opposed to psychological support. Certain methods, such as monitoring food at home, have been considered “hard work” that has damaged relationships with their children, the authors found. Families are largely left to fend for themselves.

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