Diets… Calorie counting… Bulimia… All were foreign words to the Viti Levu residents. Pre- 1995 Viti Levu, the main island in Fiji, was immune to mass media effects. Post-1998 tells a different story.
This famous naturalistic experiment studied teenage girls, age 17 on average, to see if the introduction of television in Fiji lead to disordered eating. Before television, the plump, curvy, wholesome look was desired. When weight was lost, it was a cause for furrowed brows and concern, not euphoric delight. Eating disorders were unheard of. Induced vomiting, absurd! After TV, however, all girls wanted the lollipop look (big head over a stick thin, emaciated body). Anorexia, bulimia, diets all became staples in the Fijian dictionary.
Depression is a disorder more prevalent in industrialized countries rather that developing ones. Therefore, the cultural context of disorders is important to take into account. In Fiji, after the introduction of TV, depression shot up. The study took place from 1995 to 1998. In 1995, Dr. Becker and her colleagues surveyed 63 Fijian secondary school girls. This was when TV had only just been introduced. In 1998, the researchers surveyed a different group of 65 girls from the same school who had the same characteristics as the first group, such as age and weight.
Here are the scary statistics:
- In 1998 15% of girls said they had induced vomiting to control their weight compared to 3% in 1995
- In 1998 29% scored highly on an eating-disorder-risk test compared to 13% in 1995
- In 1998 69% of girls said that at some point they had been on a diet
- In 1998 83% said that they felt TV had influenced their friends or themselves to be more conscious about body shape or weight
- In 1998 40% said that their desire to eat less or lose weight was a way of improving career prospects
- In 1998 30% said that television characters were their role models concerning career and work issues
- In 1998 heavy TV viewers (those who watch TV more than 3 nights a week) were 50% more likely to describe themselves as fat and 30% more likely than light TV viewers to go on a diet
The statistics speak for themselves; however, I will lend them a voice of my own as well. Although the media is probably not the sole reason for the changes in beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of Fijian girls, it clearly has contributed to disorder eating and negative self-images. After TV, Fijian girls wanted to look like and be the characters on shows like 90210. They would copy their hairstyles, behaviours and fashion to look like them. To be as unrealistically thin as them, heavy exercise and induced vomiting followed suite.
It is clear that the changes in Fijian ideals were in some part due to the induction of mass media. Before TV, the long lasting Fijian traditions protected young girls and inoculated them against the pernicious effect of the mass media. Now they are just as vulnerable as any of us living in an industrialized society. A few years were all it took to jettison the old customs, values and ideals and replace them with new unhealthy, bulimic ones.
Becker, E., A., Burwell, A., R., Herzog, B., D., Hamburg, P., Gilman, E., S. (2002). Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 509-514. doi 10.1192/bjp.180.6.509
Goode, E. (May 20, 1999). Study Finds TV Alters Fiji Girls’ View of Body. The New York Times. Retrieved May 13, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/20/world/study-finds-tv-alters-fiji-girls-view-of-body.html
Image credit: What is Bulimia? (n.d.). Diet Hunters. Retrieved May 13, 2013 from http://www.diethunters.com/what_is_bulimia.html#axzz2TBKtkrj1