Eastern VS. Western Values in the Development of an Eating Disorder

Hey, hello there! *waves*

Sorry for the missed update last Friday, I got so caught up with other things that…it just didn’t happen. Remember my last post on how overeating just makes you SAD? Well, that was a paper I had to write for one of the elective courses I was taking. Today’s post will be another excerpt from the paper I submitted (and got 81%!) about my opinions when it comes to the development of an eating disorder in eastern vs in western culture. Mind you, if you haven’t read my story on Binge Eating and 13 Reasons Why You’re Binging, you really ought to check it out! I’ve been coaching others through the process of overcoming this maladaptive behavior and addiction because I have first hand experience with it.

Honestly, there is a misconstrued concept that you’re sick in the head if you have BED, but that’s not the case! There are SO MANY of us out there struggling despite being perfectly sane, smart, and nutritionally sufficed.

It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.

Probably harder than giving birth when and if I have children.

So, this post isn’t focused on BED or food addiction per say, but eating disorders in general (mostly anorexia and bulimia). I’d like to hear your thoughts!

So let’s start…

**this is a lot more formal than my usual writing style; I just wrote a paper for school on this topic after lots of research and thought it’d be insightful to share my findings!

How Does Eastern vs. Western Values Play into Development of Eating Disorders?

While on the surface, eating disorders may seem like an illness of complete vanity stemming from the need to be thin, there are much deeper rooted causes to the illness. I think eating disorders stem from a of number of possible reasons, some of which include: perfectionism, the need for control in a life where a person has none, negative body image from the media, and childhood trauma. For example, a child growing up may experience bullying at school, and feel the need to fit in and “look pretty”. In order to do so, they turn to a diet that spirals into an eating disorder. Another example may be that parents exert their personal ideals over children’s lives so much so that they feel that they have no autonomy, and so food intake becomes their way of asserting control in their own lives; it gives them something to hold onto, gives them a feeling of superiority in a world they feel inferior. There are numerous, overlapping causes to eating disorders, but in each and every case, eating disorders are a user’s way of coping with life around them.

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It should not be left out that among the most well-known eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, there is also food addiction and binge eating disorder, which is often less talked about. It is a common misconception that to have an eating disorder means you’re emaciated, and vice versa (which is not true, for some people are naturally thin), but in truth, eating disorders are mental; they are not a physical illness (albeit being underweight is the most common symptom—but that would be as naïve as to assume someone who is fat must be rich). Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, for it is the motives that makes the mark for a mental disorder. The rigorous, self-absorbed western values play a huge role in the development of eating disorders, as you’ll soon see by its comparison to eastern values.

For one, eastern medicine highlights health; the aim is to prevent disease and maintain functionality of the body and measures are taken before sickness occurs. Healing methods include prayer, herbs, and acupuncture. On the opposite hand, western medicine highlights medicine. Actions are taken when we are already sick and amendments usually include pills and prescription drugs to suppress the symptoms without treating the root cause. Along with that, physical looks and fitness in western media is advertised aggressively; the focus on vanity is a contributing factor to eating disorders.

The western culture emphasizes a lot of thin, white or Caucasian models that young girls strive to be, and this is subconsciously ingrained in our heads as the idea of “beautiful” (much like the “Victoria’s Secret Perfect Body” Campaign). These slim models are marketed as successful, rich, happy, and fulfilled, and often companies prey on our own insecurities to convince us to buy their product, which will somehow make us beautiful, richer, etc. Rarely do we ever see other body types have this type of this status.

Western culture is very self-focused, and that’s why it’s no surprise that eating disorders are more common in westernized countries such as the United Sates of America compared to eastern countries like China. Here we emphasize materialism, individualism, and power. Success and pride are earned by yourself, from yourself, and for yourself; self-image is important. As a result, self-blame is a lot more common too (since you’re a 1 man-band). Self-blame and victim-mindset is the basis many mental health disorders, and that is why neuroticism is so much more common here than in eastern cultures. On the contrary, eastern culture places its emphasis on the collective—the wellbeing of the entire group—instead of the individual. Everyone shares the responsibility; the blame, the failures, and the successes. The cause/outcome of a situation is attributed outside of the individual. Because eating disorders are very much a self-focused mental illness, its prevalence is less prominent in the east (although it is on the rise due to the spreading of western influence worldwide). Again, this is not just with eating disorders, but also the majority of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. I firmly believe that because in eastern cultures you’re too focused on servicing the group and not yourself—you don’t have the ingrained value of putting emphasis on yourself, your goals (because your goals are based off of the wealth of the group at large). Everything is done for the greater good, not for personal gain. Responsibility is shared.

I find that western culture is obsessed with consumerism, results, production, and work while eastern culture is content with minimalism, spirituality, and harmony within oneself, between people, and with nature (think of Zen Buddhism for example, which promotes meditation and intuition and originates from Japan). Through these peaceful values, eastern culture accentuates self-care. People live a slower lifestyle. Generous time is allotted just to simply transition between task to task. In fact, in some areas of Asia, stores close down for a few hours midday to allow its workers time for sleep, family, and self-rejuvenation—whereas in the western culture office workers continue to grind hard; and are often seen drinking coffee to push through the afternoon “slump”. Also, a lot more time and care is taken to prep meals in Asia; they are often homecooked with labour and love and meals are a time to connect socially with family. In North America, we have we are mass producing food; so much so that we’ve had to develop automated machines just to keep up with demand (and save on time and labour. I don’t blame us; we’re all so tired at the end of the day we don’t have the energy to make anything). Here, readily available fast food lurks around every corner. It’s rare to walk down a street without seeing at least 1 Macdonald’s. In fact, fast food franchises are extending to eastern countries, causing, or if not at least adding to the huge obesity epidemic, which in itself could be a form of disordered eating.


In summary, the eastern culture lives from moment to moment while the western culture is restless and always lives in the future (which is a fundamental mentality of anxiety, a precipitating factor for eating disorders!).

As I mentioned earlier on, eating disorders are, in fact, on the rise in eastern cultures. For example, the rise of pop culture in South Korea as escalated so dramatically to the point that it is the norm to get plastic surgery—in fact walking down the street you’d be exposed to quite a few clinics! It is so common that Dr. Sewhan Rhee, who works in the industry states, “middle-school children get plastic surgery during their winter school break. It’s not considered weird. It’s considered normal” (Herrin, 2014). Popular demands include pointier noses and “chopstick legs”, which are exactly what they sound like; stick-thin legs that resemble chopsticks—the calf muscle is removed from the leg to reduce the bulk. “Slimming socks” are another phenomenon in which the user slips on these ultra tight pair of stocks to train their legs to fit into a slimmer mold—personally, I think this sounds like a scam (and much like the waist-trainer so popular nowadays in North America)!

All in all, the cultural differences between the east and the west of values play a huge role in the development of eating disorders as they affect how the individual sees themselves in the scheme of the larger picture. Eastern culture places emphasis on interdependence, where there is less self-focus while the western culture places emphasis on independence, where there is greater greater self-focus and hence, greater risk for developing an eating disorder.



Herrin, M. (2014, September 16). How the Asian Pop Culture Boom Is Feeding Eating Disorders. Retrieved June 21, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/eating-disorders-news/201409/how-the-asian-pop-culture-boom-is-feeding-eating-disorders

SO! What are your thoughts on this? What’s your cultural background? Have you had a history of disordered eating, or even just dieting?