When Asma looks in the mirror she doesn’t see the dark-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned beauty that she is told she is. Instead she sees someone that doesn’t look like the women she sees in the advertisements, television shows and movies that bombard her. She would like blue eyes, lighter skin, blonde hair, and, although she weighs a mere 102 pounds, to be even thinner. She wants to be like them, the models she is exposed to every day.
“When I see myself, all I see is fat, fat, fat,” Asma says over a cup of coffee. The coffee is the only thing she’ll allow herself to eat today, or most days for that matter. Often she’ll go for days without eating a single thing. “Sometimes I’ll allow myself some lettuce,” she says. “Or — if I’m really hungry — an apple.”
Worldwide, anorexia and other eating disorders are on the rise. According to Dr. Susan Ice, an expert in eating disorders and medical director of Philadelphia’s Renfrew Center, the country's first residential facility for the treatment of women with eating disorders, finds this alarming. "The incidence of eating disorders [in America] has doubled since the 1960s and is increasing in younger age groups, in children as young as seven,” she says, adding, “40 percent of [American] 9-year-old girls have dieted and even 5-year-olds are concerned about diet.”
But until recently, eating disorder data did not exist in South Asian and Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Early studies indicated that eating disorders were nearly non-existent in Islamic countries due to the culturally ideal curvaceous female form and patriarchal social structure.
But in 2004, a ground-breaking study published by the National Institutes of Health showed that eating disorders do indeed exist in Islamic countries, are as prevalent as in Western countries and are growing at a much faster rate. The NIH study showed “abnormal eating attitudes” to be as high as four in 10 women in some specific groups in areas of Oman, Pakistan and Turkey, a marked upswing from earlier findings. Researcher Carolyn Pedwell of the London School of Economics Gender Institute suggests that social disruption and cultural confusion have always been related to the rise in incidence of anorexia and that the recent instability in Islamic countries is no exception.
Despite the growing emergence of eating disorders in the Middle East, Asma says “there really are no treatment options in the Middle East…Doctors generally end up putting women into psychiatric hospitals and force them to undergo electroshock therapy.” Asma explains that her parents sent her to the United States so that she could get the treatment she needs without the social stigma that would come with it back in Lebanon. She says that her condition is considered “heretical” by some in her homeland, explaining that “to put yourself above your family — above god — to abuse your body like this is inexcusable.”
After struggling for years in the Middle East trying to receive treatment for anorexia, Nadia Bahrami’s parents also decided their best option was to find a comprehensive treatment clinic in the United States. The 20-year-old Turkish college student, whose name was changed to protect her privacy, says that she was repeatedly diagnosed as having “excessive stress,” told to “take some time to relax” and that her eating habits would eventually return to normal. For Nadia and her parents, this did not seem right.