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Eating Disorders Prevalent Among Muslim Girls

How much do you weigh?In fact, there is a common notion that eating disorders only affect Western Caucasian teens. This is because of the perception that Hijab removes the burden of societal pressure on women to look a certain way or weigh a certain number of pounds.

How much do you weigh?Consider anorexia, and bulimia. Many would not associate these eating disorders with Muslim communities worldwide. In fact, there is a common notion that eating disorders only affect Western Caucasian teens. This is because of the perception that Hijab removes the burden of societal pressure on women to look a certain way or weigh a certain number of pounds. The sad truth is that eating disorders do not discriminate between people of different faiths and are prevalent in many Muslim communities.

For those that are unaware of the symptoms of these disorders, they are clearly outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM. This is a handbook used by mental health professionals when diagnosing patients. According to this manual, eating disorders pertain to disturbances in eating behavior. These disturbances may involve eating too little or too much or in an unhealthy way. More specifically, anorexia and bulimia are two of the most well-known disorders that generally affect more women than men.

It is important to understand the usual symptoms of an eating disordered person. According to the fourth edition of the DSM, anorexia is characterized by a person’s failure to maintain at least 85 percent of the expected body weight. More importantly, anorexics struggle with a warped perception of their body size and fear gaining any weight. Bulimics, on the other hand, take in a larger amount of food than normal and normally take various methods such as self-induced vomiting to rid their bodies of it. Despite their differences, both cause tremendous damage to one’s health.

Dr. Ulrick Vieux, a Clinical Instructor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, confirms the prevalence of eating disorders in Muslim communities.

“Eating disorders are prevalent but usually in conjunction with other pathologies,” he said. “For example, many cluster B traits are usually associated with them. The key thing is differentiating between bulimia and anorexia. These problems exist within the Muslim community and are often overlooked.”

In a small madressa classroom of about twenty fifteen year-old girls in Dar es Salam, Tanzania, surveys on dieting were handed out to possibly trace the presence of eating disorders in the girls’ social circles. Out of the twenty, only three were satisfied with their body image. In addition, two others noted down that they had heard of girls in the community who had been secretly purging and restricting to the point of exhaustion. These results highlight that there is a possibility for eating disorders to emerge in our communities.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to spot someone with an eating disorder, which explains why so many would not associate one with a girl with Hijab who secretly engulfs large amounts of cake and ice cream, only to spend hours with her head in the toilet. This is because of the secretive nature of those that suffer from anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating. Take former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who has admitted to having suffered from bulimia and famously said, “I’ve never confessed it before. Out of shame, I suppose, or embarrassment, or just because it’s such a strange thing for someone like me to confess to.”

On the other hand, it is true that eating disorders affect about eight million people worldwide, with the majority being young women. Thus, even though there are some possible indicators, those who constantly obsess about the number of calories in their orange or graze on large quantities of nuts in one sitting would not overtly do so.

Another misconception that many have about eating disorders is that they are all rooted in dissatisfaction with one’s body image. In addition, most would normally think that food is the pivot of these illnesses. In fact, if one were to refer to the National Eating Disorders Association’s publications and the information that is presented by them year after year, there is a clear indication that there are all kinds of causes of eating disorders and that the use or abuse of food is just a symptom.

Digging deeper than preoccupations with food and weight is a method that many medical professionals use to pinpoint key issues. Take for example, psychological factors such as low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety and stress. Or, one could also point to interpersonal factors such as troubled family and personal relationships, difficulty expressing emotions or feelings, history of being teased or being ridiculed based on size, and a history of physical or sexual abuse. In addition, it is important to address cultural and societal pressures for mainly women to remain a certain size and body shape as an integral part of the formation of eating disorders.

One thing to bear in mind about all of the different causes of eating disorders is that there is no one single reason that anorexia and bulimia surface in one’s psyche and disposition. Therefore, they are very complex and are difficult to treat. This is not to say that help is not available to those that seek it or that recovery is impossible. In fact, the sooner one reaches out for professional medical treatment, the better the chances of a complete recovery.


Zahra Khimji is an aspiring journalist studying at Columbia University in New York. She is a new member of the
Islamic Insights team and hopes to write about issues facing Muslim youth and women.

About Zahra Khimji

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  • Brother

    Excellent article sister! Keep up the good work! 🙂

  • Ulrick

    Very important article and thank you for enlightening us. 🙂 🙂

  • Yasmeen

    Thank you for writting an article about something that is so rarely discussed in Islamic culture. The more information spead on disorders, the more people will feel comfortable to recieving medical help. This article could actually save lifes from those suffering with an eating disorder. Humd’Allah.

  • Mai

    I’m a Muslim 19yrs girl. I’ve been struggling with the disorder since my late 16. No one of my family want to admit it it’s a serious illness. They’re all in denial& over the past years till now…my life has been a an absolute living-hell.
    Muslim people wouldn’t understand…I can’t reach out for help, for I know, they’ll think I’m, but an attention seeking-B**. (my mom says it to me everyday)
    & to be quite honest, I’ve had attempted (but failed obviously) suicide more than 4times, ever since I had ED. Yeah, it’s a sin, but when things got too intense, and live seems to be HELL, death would become the only ‘choice’ I could find.
    I’m slowly dying everyday…wasting away, yet, I’m still here…..*why can’t bulimia JUST END ME?*

    Some thoughts,
    I actually couldn’t believe I would find such a topic.
    God*Bless~*…..

    I hope I didn’t hurt anyone with what I said.

    • Laura

      Oh my god, I hope you’re okay. It IS NOT a sin, no more than cancer or depression is. Your family are awful for not even trying to understand or support you.
      Look after yourself hun.
      x

  • otowi

    Asalaam Alaaykum wr wb

    I am very sorry for your pain, sister, and I wish I knew the best way to help. May Allah swt grant you tranquility and fill you with hope.

  • faye

    Salam
    Bulimia will never end you just like many other physical and mental disorders that severely afflict our body and mind but seemly never come to an end. No matter you wish so badly even ask God as a mercy to release you from these disorders, you will find you are still at the same place and same conditions. Through these tasks try to get closer to God. Make some or just little improvement in your will and mind day by day, you will find you are not always at the same conditions so depressingly and hopelessly. We often feel our families or people around you don’t care or understand the real troubles and difficulties we face, but try to think that everyone has his own problem. Be grateful for what God grants you. Your Lord will never forsake you except you forsake yourself. I understand myself the sufferings from depressions and hunting suicidal intention , the helplessness when no one can help or even care; and these I only can seek help from God.

  • No one.

    There just isn’t enough support for Muslims with eating disorders.
    Denying there is a problem sure as hell doesn’t solve anything. Why do muslims think acting oblivious is a way to solve EXISTING problems?
    Makes me wonder why I am a Muslim.

  • Hidden Soldier

    [quote] Why do muslims think acting oblivious is a way to solve EXISTING problems? Makes me wonder why I am a Muslim.[/quote]

    It’s only those Muslims who give priority to culture over religion. Which would mean, they aren’t our ideal Muslims..right? It shouldn’t make you wonder why you’re Muslim. It should make you wonder WHY the Muslim community is more cultural than practicing. Then try fix it, not run away. 🙂

  • Me..

    Im 17 years old, and have had |Bulimia since i was 12.
    It ruins you life and as much as i wish i was more devoted to my religion, its just
    taken over my mind, (my eating disorder)
    Im currently in treatment for it, but its a struggle for my parents to keep
    it a secret, as we have to travel a 2 hour journey to my clinic every week.
    I dont want my family finding out, and my parents respect that,
    Theyve been with me and do somuch for me.
    I also think of suicide alot, and have tried once.
    Feel so ashamed to think of it.
    the point of this was that, nobody who saw me in the street would ever think
    that this was my life, that i had an ed.
    Its strange how everybody, and i do aswell, can be so stereotypical, and
    judgemental over how you look.

  • Nasrin

    Salam,

    I came across this article and comments while I was doing research for my final year dissertation at uni. I am planning on doing some research on Islam and eating disorders and the way Islam impacts eating disorders treatment the development of the disorder and any other effect it has on the disorder. There is very little literature on this topic and I think it’s such a disclosed topic that it needs to be raised so people can understand that Muslims can get eating disorders too. I have made up my own questionnaire and if anyone females wouldn’t mind answering the questionnaires I’d be very grateful if they could contact me. My email address is n.begum@ucl.ac.uk/nasrinbegum@hotmail.com.

  • Yasmin

    I am a muslim girl 18 yrs old when i was 1 i used to suffer from anorexia,
    but this year i became a binge eater ,and its really taking control over my life ,when I had anorexia i ended it by trying to calm myself and trying to love food and
    understand i need it for energy then with ime i started overeating when i
    am aone ans stopped the excessive excersises ,then i gained wained ,
    and since then everything just went wrong,i was always an A student ,
    but then i felt i was so dumb bcz i ate alot and alone and that i feard ppl but
    didnt fear Allah that always watched,I tried to stop it and to fast ,
    I tried to tell my mum and i told my dad too though i am very shy from him,
    but they just ignore it ,I losst hope in life and i tried to commit suicide for the
    third time in my life,my dad found out then and he said that this way I am not
    his daughter bcz this isnt a behaviour of a muslim,I had to prove myself
    by studying hard n i did hes ok with me no,but i was still having the deadly binges , Id go down with my frinds and they say we r hungry ,n i am lik i really wish to be hungry once
    ,even when i feel its just for seconds n then i guess my ugly stored fat
    would compensate ,,I am not overweight i am normal but i continue to gain
    weight ,i wish Allah will help me stop it as i dont want to go into
    Ramdan with these disgust feelings and I think there should be more
    researches n help in muslim countries for this coz it really affects our life aalot
    Pray for me 🙁

  • sadiyah

    bulimia can be beaten ! Iam 20 years old and was bulimic since 17. Iam now a recoverd bulimic but i stil hav the thoughts in my head everyday even as soon as i wake up.everyday is a struggle but its geting easier ! I dnt want to giv in to bulimaia because i look at bulimia as the enermy so i wil fight until i win ! I understand how hard it is it took me years but you can do it xxxameen

    • tasnie

      sadiyah,
      please tell me what steps you took to recover?
      im not clinically diagnosed as bulimic, but i have all the symptoms. instead of vomiting though, i exercise excessively, even in Ramadan, without water. I run anywhere between 5-10 miles about 5 hours after a binge episode, to make up for all the calories i consumed. im a busy college student and this cycle of over-eating, lazyness from being so full, guilt, excessive workouts, tirdeness from the exercise, is really wasting my time. so when i have exams coming up, i just binge and i dont waste time on excercising..resulting in gaining weight. im not fat, but i have oblique fat, aka muffin tops, love handles….and i just want to lose 5 lbs. but my family thinks im fine, and theres always so much food around the house. i try to avoid it, but my family makes it hard for me, they tempt me with junk food and encourage me to eat. they wont take me seriously when i say i have an eating disorder. they say its just your age, you have a big appetite. im sick of this. i want to pray for help and ask God to help me…but i feel scared that im being ungrateful for the food Allah has given me. I feel like i should have self-control and i should follow our Prophets guidance of eating 1/3, drinking 1/3 and leaving 1/3 of your stomach empty. but i just get so lost when im in a binging episode that i dont remember that. otherwise i am a practicing muslim and would pray for help, but am just afraid of being ungrateful by praying for such a minor thing, when theres people starving in parts of the world. i also have so much more important things to pray for, like my grades in school, and passage to jannah..but my weight and bulimia problem is a maajor concern. please tell me how you recovered.

  • kawsar

    assallamu alaikum am a muslim and i recently discovered by little sistert could be bullimic as she sticks her finger in her mouth when she eats and we grow up in a wesgtern society and shes 11/12 i dont know wat to do im worried like sick and heartbroken,and shocked to hear this and none of my family members know except for me and i love her as when i was 11 i didnt have this and it never got that sserious?
    any possible reasons
    please make dua for her inshalah to demolish this foerver from her

  • suheima

    suheima@hotmail.com
    I am happy for you to email me if u need some advice, I have good insight into techniques to help with overcoming eating disorders

  • Laura

    You all seem to think of this illness as shameful or a sin. If you had cancer or depression, would THAT be a sin? Of course not. You need help and support if you suffer (yes, suffer) from any sort of ED, it is not your fault, you are not attention seeking, and for people you love to imply you are is absolutely shocking.