A new role for culture

Although this research doesn't directly relate to eating disorders, it did make me think.

Scientists at MIT's Institute of Brain Research asked either East Asian people or those raised in America or other Western cultures to solve two different types of problems: one set involved making objective judgements, and one involved making subjective judgements. The researchers hypothesized that people from East Asia -- whose culture emphasizes working together and "taking one for the team" -- would do better at making subjective judgements. Americans, on the other hand, who are taught to value independence, would do better at making objective judgements.

And all evidence points to that hypothesis being true.

The point of this research isn't just that people from different cultures are better at solving different problems. That doesn't seem particularly earth shattering. Indeed, the significance of the research was that the brains of the participants actually functioned differently.

Culture, then, can rewire your brain.

This study didn't examine food or body image in the slightest, so I don't want to make too many conclusions. Yet, if culture can alter brain function, it makes me wonder: how does living in a food-phobic, diet-philic culture change the way we think?

Some of the ways it changes our thinking seems less permanent. We're more willing to tolerate, even encourage, too low of a body weight, even in a recovering anorexic. A large child seems to reflect poorly on a parent.* And while most parents don't want a malnourished child, many parents and physicians are willing to settle on a low body weight.

Not only that, but we get used to seeing people- women and men- who have unrealistic body shapes and sizes. So while we may tell ourselves that "most women don't look like that," we become used to seeing it. And so it may take longer for people to recognize there is a problem.

Everyone is dieting, we say. Body obsession is normal. He'll snap out of it. She just wants to look like insert-name-of-latest-celebrity-basket-case-here. We see pictures of people who are anorexic all the time.

I also think people are re-trained as to what is an acceptable amount of food for a person to eat. Jokes abound as to how much a teenage boy needs to eat. A teen girl may need less than a teen boy (on average), but her needs, too, go up. Dieting puts her at risk for iron deficiencies and lower IQs.

Even now, my nutritional needs are far greater than most of the people around me. It's hard to deal with. But maybe I don't eat huge amounts. Maybe a lot of the people around me aren't eating enough. Maybe no one knows what a proper meal is.

Kind of makes you think.

*Granted, most therapists think the parents of an anorexic child are somehow flawed as well. Kind of a no-win situation, no?

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Sarah said...

This is really interesting !

Welcome home, Carrie!


Lucy said...

It is interesting, thank you.

I agree, I don't know a single woman who eats in a 'normal' manner (equivalent to the way many of my male friends eat). It's always talk of 'x calories in this', 'x grams of fat in this', 'this is really healthy', 'don't eat too many of those!'. Etc. It goes on and on. How on earth is anybody with an ed supposed to maintain a grip on normal eating when everyone around them is totally obsessed with food and weight aswell? I find this is especially bad after Christmas when everyone decides to simultaneously go on a diet; it seems to be just what one does.

I tend to eat with my male friends, who don't care at all. It helps me maintain at least some of my sanity when I'm struggling.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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Have any questions or comments about this blog? Feel free to email me at carrie@edbites.com

nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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