Eating Disorders Prevalent Among Muslim Girls

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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.

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