x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Emirati girls starve themselves 'to look pretty in a dress'

Study by Zayed University says 75 per cent of young women are unhappy with their bodies

ABU DHABI // Emirati girls who are becoming obsessed with "celebrity bodies" are putting their health at risk. A study conducted at Zayed University revealed that almost a quarter of the 228 female students questioned suffered from abnormal eating attitudes. Such girls are at risk of developing eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, the researchers said.

"There are rampant abnormal eating attitudes, which are themselves a health problem," said Dr Justin Thomas, assistant professor of natural science and public health at Zayed University and one of the study's authors. "Undoubtedly you will see an increase in eating disorder-related behaviours and full-blown cases of eating disorders. I really have very little doubt about that. That's part and parcel of the transition to modernity. You bring on board McDonald's and at the same time you bring on board Vogue magazine."

He added that the lack of specialist facilities to treat anorexics means it often "stays under the radar, undetected". Wadima al Mazrui, a senior graphic design student at Zayed University, said harmful eating attitudes were common among her peers. "The girls, it really matters to them. They would starve themselves for weeks just to look pretty in a dress," she said. Girls in college, she added, often see themselves as fat compared to celebrities, and few are convinced by warnings of the dangers of excessive weight loss.

Those who suffer from anorexia maintain a low body weight and have an obsessive fear of gaining weight. People affected by bulimia have a tendency to binge and then purge the food by vomiting to avoid weight gain. Close to 75 per cent of those questioned said they were unhappy with their bodies and more than 80 per cent picked thin or emaciated figures as their ideal body image. Research indicates about 25 per cent of female Emiratis between the ages of 19 and 25 are underweight, said Dr Thomas, whereas it is closer to 10 per cent in the UK.

The UAE is experiencing many of the cultural changes associated with the emergence of eating disorders in the West, the report said. It has a rapidly developing economy and a rampant consumer culture that emphasises "slenderness as a female body ideal". A survey last year of 900 girls at Al Ain University showed 1.8 per cent of 13 to 19-year-old girls were anorexic. The rate is one per cent for British girls between 16 and 18.

Hala Abu Taha, a dietician based in Dubai, said serious eating disorders required treatment by a team that includes specialist doctors, a nutritionist and a psychiatrist. "There is no awareness. It's a serious problem, and its short-term complications are worse than being obese," said Mrs Abu Taha. @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae