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Cultural Components of Latinos with Eating Disorders

The role culture plays in mental health issues

By Adriana Diaz, MSW
Published on LatinoLA: November 16, 2014


Cultural Components of Latinos with Eating Disorders


The #EDIncludesMe previous blogs addressed the larger, more systemic barriers the Latino community faces in accessing mental health services and identifying and treating dual diagnosis with eating disorders. Today, we will look at the role that various cultural components play for Latinos with eating disorders.

Family's impact for Latinos with Eating Disorders

Each culture brings a unique constellation of family dynamics that contribute to an individual's mental health. Families shape identity, influence thought processes, set standards for emotional expression, and influence the degree connection to others. In the Latino community, family impact on mental health, specifically eating disorders, can contribute to whether or not an individual seeks help. While obtaining feedback during a study for binge eating disorders found that Mexican-American women reported that their "family members, particularly those from older generations, tended to be less acculturated and less knowledgeable about eating disorders. Thus, family members were sometimes unable to identify with participants' experience." Unfamiliarity with eating disorders and difficulty connecting with the struggles of a family member may result in a decreased likelihood of seeking treatment.

Religion & Fatalism

Traditionally, religion plays a pivotal role in Latino culture with a majority of Latinos identifying as Roman Catholic. The Latino cultural values of personalismo and simp?ítico (close, affectionate relationships) provide the context for an active and personal connection with God. This connection may help individuals overcome personal and family hardships and provide strength to work for the social betterment of the community. Spirituality may also serve an individual in the difficult recovery process by providing a feeling of connection to something greater than oneself, additional avenues of coping (such as prayer or attending church), and through supporting practices of forgiveness and acceptance. In addition, a priest or other religious leader may serve as one of the first points of contact when an individual discovers they are struggling with food, weight, or body image issues.

While religion and spirituality may be the source of strength for Latino/a individuals in the recovery process, other aspects of faith should be examined to determine the impact on mental health. Fatalism, a commonly held viewpoint in the Catholic faith, is the belief that all events are predetermined and thus unavoidable. With the locus of control outside of the individual, recovery may become a more passive process. Other areas of exploration that may negatively affect an individual include: the possibility of persecution based on religion, the effects if an individual perceives their God as distant or intolerant, and whether or not the individual feels supported by the members of their religion.

Cultural Role of Food

In the Latino culture, meal time represents more than just a time to eat. Meals are a social gathering with the food itself representing abundance and hospitality. Portions tend to be large and eating in excess is seen as the norm, not viewed as binge eating. One Mexican American women insightfully said, "Food is very sacred, you don't waste it" and "It's more than just food. It's like food is love with your family. Like the more my grandma loves me, the more she feeds me. You feel really guilty saying no because that's how she shows that she loves you. My grandma is not going to go and hug me, she's going to go and feed me. So, it's like you're saying no to more than just food".

Gender Roles

Knapp et all, 2009 tells us that gender roles of Latino/a men and women are "reflected in spatial distinctions of la calle (the street) and la casa (the home)." This symbolizes the belief that men are permitted to leave the home for work, play, etc and women are to remain in the home to raise the children and maintain the household. Even further, the women's role has had it's own set of "commandments" that further solidify what is expected of a woman in the family. A leading researcher on marianismo, the glorification of the female role as "pure" and "morally strong", has condensed this female gender role concept to ten rules, four of which speak directly to barriers a Latina woman may face in obtaining or engaging in treatment:

-Don't put your needs first
-Don't ask for help
-Don't discuss your personal problems outside the house
-Don't change

Formal treatment for an eating disorder must be obtained through reaching out to others and discussing personal problems outside the home. Recovery often involves re-assessing wants and needs and making change in numerous areas of one's life. Restrictions in these areas not only create barriers, but can directly contradict the premise of treatment and recovery (Gil & Vasquez, 1996; Marano-River, 2000; Cofresi, 2002).

Hope for Latinos with Eating Disorders

Gratefully, with increased awareness come increased hope in identifying and treating eating disorders in the Latino community. Recently, Latina celebrities are exposing their eating disorder and body image struggles to the public. Demi Lovato, Jessica Alba and Jamie Lynn Sigler have made their struggles public in hopes to reach other to other struggling with similar issues. Anahi, well loved Mexican actress with over a decade of battling anorexia, sought help when her heart stopped beating. In her desire to raise awareness of eating disorders, Maria Conchita Alonso, beauty pageant winner and actress, publicly spoke on her years of bulimia and seeking help due to physical damage to her esophagus and teeth. As these brave survivors make their struggles known and fight the stigma of mental illness, they empower the silent sufferers to reach out for help.

In addition, newer research and an interest on the effects of culture and ethnicity on mental health and treatment results in well-informed mental health professionals and improved care for Latino/a individuals.

There is always hope for recovery from an eating disorder. Compassionate and educated mental health professionals who not only understand how to treat the eating disorder, but understand the importance of culture and ethnicity in treatment, can light the path to health and happiness.

About Adriana Diaz, MSW:
Adriana Diaz is the Discharge Planner for The Bella Vita, A Beautiful Life Psychology Group in Los Angeles, CA.
Author's website




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