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'You’ve got to eat!': How ethnicity and culture might impact eating disorders in Australia

initiative to provide free food to residents of Bankstown and Fairfield who have lost their jobs due to the closure Source: Getty Images

A recent study has looked at how culture and upbringing could impact the disordered eating experiences of Italian-Australian women, and experts suggest it might be a problem far more extended in other cultures, too.

“Food is everything! It's how we express ourselves as people, through our food," says Francesca*.

"Italians and food, there is just this beautiful relationship, and that is how they want to be seen, as caring, nurturing … food is part of that.” 

Francesca's experience through her journey of disordered eating ranged from anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.

Her testimony is part of research led by Michelle Caruso, from the University of South Australia, exploring the intersections between disordered eating, gender, culture and food.

Eating disorder in Italian-Australian community.
"Italians and food, there is just this beautiful relationship, and that is how they want to be seen, as caring, nurturing, food is part of that.”
Getty Images

“The women (in the study) reflected on the fact that the sights, aromas and tastes of certain Italian foods held deep symbolic meanings attached to cultural and religious traditions and celebrations,” she tells SBS Italian.

Sights, aromas and tastes

The emotions experienced through food, she says, produced a sense of connectedness with family and were infused in their memories.

"The women also explored the emotions that they associated with their memories of being fed and their relationship with food throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.”

Spaghetti with tomato sauce shot on rustic wooden table
'There is a necessity for educators and practitioners in the area of disordered eating to look beyond pathologising assessments and interventions.'

Titled "Devi Mangiare!’ [You have to eat!]", the study uses the term “disordered eating,” rather than “eating disorder” - typically associated with binge eating, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which the authors suggest "implies a medical or psychiatric condition."

The research suggests there's a weakness with that approach in "its failure to contextualise the disordered eating experiences of women from diverse cultural backgrounds.” 

The women’s memories of eating the food prepared by their mothers and grandmothers had produced feelings of love, safety, and being cared for.

Food is everything, food is love”, is one of the main themes that emerge through the research. 

Food is love

“Nonna’s [grandmother’s] food, the more I ate, the more I loved her and the more she loved me,” says Carmela*, another participant in the study.

Food is deeply associated with the primary role of mothers and matriarchs as nurturers.

Eating disorders in Italian Australian community.
Grandmother, mother and daughter in a kitchen in Signat, Italy.
Getty Images

“The womens' memories of eating the food prepared by their mothers and grandmothers had produced feelings of love, safety, and being cared for,” Michelle says.

Nonna’s food, the more I ate, the more I loved her and the more she loved me.

Italian-Australian women continue to hold significant yet complex roles and relationships with food that encompass roles of caring and food sharing.

“Foodways have helped to maintain the women’s authority, their ethnic belonging and connection to family,” she says.

'The kitchen is the heart of the house'

And as love is a universal language, it is not uncommon to find testimonies of the same themes in other cultures.

“There is a famous quote that says, ‘the kitchen is the heart of the house’. When we think about this quote, it’s completely normal to see mums in charge of the kitchen, because they are the love authority," says May Zaki, a Sydney-based author, life coach and naturopath, originally from Egypt.

"That’s why we always taste the love in grandma's dinner, or even when mothers prepare the meals,” May Zaki tells SBS Italian.

Foodways have helped to maintain the women’s authority, their ethnic belonging and connection to family.

“I think as Egyptian, we resonate a lot to the same mentality, food is a language of love that connect families and family members. We don’t gather without sharing food.”

May Zaki is a Sydney-based author, life coach and naturopath, originally from Egypt.
May Zaki is a Sydney-based author, life coach and naturopath, originally from Egypt.
May Zaki/Instagram

Food and the migration experience

According to Michelle Caruso, there are fundamental and symbolic meanings attached to food amongst many other ethnic groups.

"Holding onto these meanings and symbolism associated with food is very important to maintaining ethnic identity post-migration,” she says.

I think as Egyptian, we resonate a lot to the same mentality, food is a language of love that connect families and family members.

“As a migrant, coming from the Middle East, I thought we, as Egyptians or Arabs, are the only people who were emotionally connected to food," says May Zaki.

"But I was wrong. The more I meet and know people from different backgrounds, the more I see how we all are psychologically connected to food.”

But, she has personally experienced how food can become a dangerous refuge throughout her migration experience.

Eating disorders in Italian-Australian community.
"I think as Egyptian, we resonate a lot to the same mentality, food is a language of love that connect families and family members."
Getty Images

“For me as migrant coming from the same mentality [Middle Eastern], I used to go for food to soothe my stressful moments. Which didn’t really help me physically or emotionally. I put on a lot of weight back then, also I was trapped into a guilt cycle whenever I ate something sweet.

"So, when I feel bad about myself, I ate more to overcome those feelings until I was trapped in an endless cycle.”

As a migrant, coming from the Middle East, I thought we as Egyptians or Arabs are the only people who were emotionally connected to food. But I was wrong.

Her own self-discovery journey took her to open her own company “Rashaqa by May,” where she helps Muslim mothers achieve their health goals.

Acculturation

Dr Maala Lal is a psychologist at Sydney Psychology Group and has done extensive work on eating disorders across cultures.

"When individuals have to adapt or adjust to a new cultural environment, through a process called acculturation, and the acculturation is difficult, more abnormal eating attitudes and behaviours may develop as a response or in an attempt to cope with adjustment into a new culture,” she says.

Dr Maala Lal is a psychologist at Sydney Psychology Group.
Dr Maala Lal has done extensive work on eating disorders across cultures.
Dr Mal Lal/Instagram

“I always say food is our identity, that’s what makes Egyptians different that Italians or Indians and so on. And as migrants we need to fulfil our sense of belonging by food, music, art and our ways of celebrations,” adds May Zaki.

Beauty ideals across cultures

Fare la bella figura [To make a good impression],” was the second major pattern that surfaced throughout Caruso’s research. Especially among post-migration Italian Australian individuals, to behave a certain way and maintain a good appearance within the Italian-Australian community was seen as being “properly Italian” or very distinctly “not-Anglo-Australian.”

Carmela*, another study participant, reflected on how it was a woman’s responsibility to maintain the position of respect that the family occupies in the Italian-Australian community by "cooking well and behaving respectfully, highlighting that “they [women] are the ones who are meant to prove that."

Eating disorders in cultural communities in Australia.
Research into the relationship between media, beauty ideals and eating disorders has shown ambiguous results says Dr Mal Lal.
Flickr/Robertsharp

Most of the women involved believe that these ideals had prevented them from voicing their disordered eating experiences with their families.

Meanwhile, the stereotypical beauty ideal for Indian cultures is that being ‘fat’ or ‘full-bodied’ implies wealth, health and happiness says Dr Lal, but the research into the relationship between media, beauty ideals and eating disorders has shown ambiguous results, acculturation may include adopting the value of thinness.

Younger generations 

Although most research shows that new generations of women in Australia are less affected by the traditional beauty ideals of their migrant families, May Zaki stresses the importance of focusing the discussion on creating new healthy models.

"Back in time mums used to sacrifice their emotional and physical health for the sake of their kids. Until we grew up filled with low self-esteem, poor body image as a result of what we saw our mums be. Nowadays, it is all about comparing ourselves with unrealistic social media influencers".

We, as mums, need to learn how to set ourselves as a priority, know how strongly we influence our kids, because they look up for us as their role models.

“There is a necessity for educators and practitioners in the area of disordered eating to look beyond pathologising assessments and interventions and integrate understandings from anthropological research, food-related studies and feminist perspectives into their work,”  concludes Michelle Caruso.

“This will enable a better understanding of culturally diverse women’s disordered eating experiences through acknowledgement of the distinct features of the cultural, gendered, familial and food system context that women are located in."

*Not their real names, quotes from “’Devi Mangiare!’ [You have to eat!]: Experiences of disordered eating among Italian-Australian” by Michelle Caruso.

 

Anyone needing support with eating disorders is encouraged to contact:

Butterfly: national helpline on 1800 33 4673, online chat service, or via support@butterfly.org.au

The Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline is 1300 550 23.

For urgent support call Lifeline on 13 11 14.