Most Read
Most Commented
Anorexia in M'sia: An understudied problem

COMMENT | An unhealthy thin body on the verge of malnourishment. That’s an image that the word “anorexia” may summon up in people’s minds. The physical manifestations are much more obvious than its mental characteristics.

In Malaysia, however, there is minimal social awareness about the phenomenon of anorexia, as there has been a dearth of studies on the topic.

The issue of anorexia already appears in how it is defined and approached.

More often than not, it is equated to an illness in which its victims need saving from the medical profession. It is classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM‐IV‐TR). Deviating from a “normal” body, if there is one, is seen as a medical catastrophe.

Sufferers of anorexia don’t even get to define their own struggles. More worryingly, the sufferers are dehumanised. They are likened to a machine that needs to be fixed. The way we define anorexia will determine the way we approach anorectics in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, it is estimated that 1 percent of the population suffers from anorexia, according to newspaper reports at least.

The origins of such statistics are difficult to trace or obscure. This difficulty undoubtedly reflects the lack of seriousness with which anorexia is taken in the country.

“1 percent” shows that the phenomenon of anorexia in Malaysia is uncommon, or so it seems.  Could it be that there are many more anorectics who simply don’t come forward?

After all, the statistics can only rely on people who admit they’re suffering from anorexia. While there may be a dearth of statistics on how many people in Malaysia suffer from anorexia, there are certainly reasons for why the phenomenon may exist in the Malaysian context.

Before continuing, the gendered nature of anorexia should not be forgotten. Globally, the obsession with a thin body has long been thought to be a uniquely “female” problem.

However, for every 10 to 20 females with eating disorders in Malaysia, it has been reported that there would be one male suffering from a similar problem, although males may less likely come forward about such disorders.

While it is not surprising to know that males suffer from anorexia too, these figures are potentially inaccurate and have been difficult to verify.

Male anorexia is a topic on its own and would necessitate another discussion about the cultural assumptions of masculinity in today’s society.

Fair skin as beautiful skin

A discussion of anorexia cannot be divorced from a discussion about beauty standards specific to a particular society.

In Malaysia, the ideal of beauty revolves around one having a fair, white complexion. Malaysia has not been spared from such ideals through mediums such as advertisements, billboards, and television programmes. These influences are prevalent in most societies today.

However, one need not look further than the Miss Universe Malaysia pageant to see the beauty standards aspired to in Malaysia.

It is interesting, at best, to see how Malaysia, as a former British colony, does not invest much in retaining the names of their former colonial masters on road signs while its people aspire to be like the very people whose heritage they see little value in.

The woman that are championed in the Miss Universe Malaysia pageant are often of mixed ancestry, not Malay per se. Even having that minuscule drop of western blood makes you stand out in the competition for being supposedly more beautiful.

No doubt a colonial legacy, "white" is seen as the beauty standard to aspire to, almost as if we are ashamed of our own skin.

Moving forward

How does all this link with anorexia though? The fact that Western models, or local models with mixed ancestry, are coincidentally thin gives the model of the “thin body” more credence than it deserves. It becomes the body Malaysian women aspire to have.

To medicalise anorexia is simply too easy. The way to tackle this problem is to understand why a certain notion of the body is propagated in Malaysia and then to question it.

Just because little research on anorexia in Malaysia has been conducted does not make the problem any less significant. We need to ask why we want to look a certain way while compromising our health.

While statistics on anorexia in Malaysia may be elusive, knowing the nature of the eating disorder will go a long way in combating it.

SYED IMAD ALATAS is a member of the publications team at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute. He enjoys doing social commentary on topics such as religion and gender. 

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

View Comments