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Eating disorders accompany television to Fiji, study finds


BOSTON (May 19, 1999 8:28 p.m. EDT) - Symptoms of eating disorders have increased fivefold among teenage girls on Fiji since television came to the Pacific island nation four years ago, a study found.

The year TV was widely introduced in Fiji in 1995, only 3 percent of girls reported they vomited to control their weight, according to the study by Harvard researcher Anne Becker. Three years later, 15 percent reported the behavior.

"They look to television characters as role models," said Becker, who presented her findings Wednesday at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Washington.

"While it's an everyday concept to Americans, reshaping the body is a new concept to Fijians," she said.

Though Becker cautioned that the study does not establish a definitive link between television and eating disorders, she said the increases were dramatic in a culture that traditionally has focused on the importance of eating well and looking robust.

Other warning signs were high in the follow-up study in 1998, with 74 percent of the Fijian girls reporting feeling "too big or fat" at least sometimes and 62 percent reporting dieting in the past month.

Traditionally, Fijians call noticeable weight loss "going thin," and see it as an alarming sign of illness or lack of resources, she said.

Fiji has only one TV channel, which shows mostly American, Australian and British programs. Favorites include "Melrose Place," "ER" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."

One girl in the study said the teenagers on television are "slim and very tall" and that, "We want our bodies to become like that ... so we try to lose a lot of weight."

For the study, a total of 129 girls ages 15 to 19 were interviewed, said Becker, head of research at the Harvard Eating Disorders Center and assistant professor of medical anthropology at Harvard Medical School. Researchers surveyed 64 girls in 1995 and 65 in 1998 and did not track individuals over the three-year period.

The shift by young people away from an acceptance of heaviness comes as Fijians and other South Pacific peoples battle problems brought on by a high-fat, high-volume diet, like pig meat and calorie-dense root foods like yams, cassava and taro.

Becker also found that 84 percent of village women in the study's sample were overweight or obese, and New Zealand's National Heart Foundation has said more than 70 percent of Pacific Islanders suffer from health problems related to bad diet, including heart disease, obesity and the highest diabetes incident rate in the world.

Television, however, is just one part of the cultural change taking place on the once-isolated island.

"Television is part and parcel of this rapid change and exposure to global values and media images," she said. "In a community such as Fiji, adolescents are particularly vulnerable."

"They're trying to emulate a lifestyle: Western-style clothes, haircuts and slim bodies," she said.