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How Culture Affects Eating and Weight

  • Eating

Although growing up in a family that contributes to or reinforces unhealthy attitudes toward eating and weight is enough to set you on the path of destructive eating, cultural factors also play a part in shaping you. Understanding these values is part of the process of changing how you think and feel about food and your body. By culture, I mean not only American society, but also the specific ethnic culture in which you were raised.
We live in a highly competitive society in which the norm is to look around and compare yourself to everyone else. If you fall into the trap of constantly evaluating your body according to others, it seems natural to buy into society’s judgment that you’re bad for being fat and good for being thin. Americans also prize individualism, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, toughing it alone, and succeeding on your own. Adhering to that kind of thinking makes it hard, if not impossible, to get the help you need for eating and other problems.
American culture strongly values success, suggesting that if you don’t achieve your weight goals, you must be a failure. Along with success comes our obsession with external beauty and rewards. Chasing a superficial ideal such as thinness rather than putting energy into developing authenticity and deeper aspects of self is typically American and an ultimately meaningless endeavor. Overvaluing externals and things material makes what we have seem more important than who we are.
There are also ethnic values and mores to consider. If you come from a culture that puts family above the individual, you may try to conform and blend in at the expense of your emotional and physical needs. If your culture says that men and women are not equal, you may have an uphill battle asserting yourself as a woman and, as a man, not allowing yourself to be vulnerable and “needy.” Obviously, if your culture makes a big deal of eating, implying that food is love, you will have a hard time separating the two and following the rules of “normal” eating. Moreover, you may feel in a bind if your culture’s perception of ideal weight clashes with that of American society.
There is no right way to view culture and make adjustments that are healthy for you, but it’s important to at least recognize how societal influences shape you. When you recognize their affect, you can then make decisions about what values you’re willing to adhere to and which ones to let go. Remember, the goal is to be true to yourself and find your own way, which means thinking for yourself about food and your body.