x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkey struggles with its body image

Incident at diet 'clinic of death' underscores a shift in the way beauty is defined as Turks strive to copy images seen in the media.

Models present creations by Turkish designers during a fashion show in Istanbul.
Models present creations by Turkish designers during a fashion show in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // When Dila Kurt, a 19-year-old architecture student, checked into a private diet clinic outside Istanbul, she had only one aim: she wanted to lose weight. Fast. Kurt, who weighed 98kg when she entered "Dr Kushan's International Clinic", subjected herself to a rigorous regime that combined a reduced energy intake of only 1,500 calories a day with regular exercise. She lost 15kg in just six weeks. But on Sept 7, during a visit by her family, Kurt collapsed suddenly and died.

Her death caused a nationwide outcry, with many commentators and health experts blaming a lack of regulation and oversight in Turkey's health sector. But analysts say the fate of the young woman also showed that beauty ideals in this country are changing rapidly and that more and more Turks - and especially women - are ready to do almost anything to become as slim as the international stars and fashion models they see on television or on the internet.

Muzaffer Kushan's weight loss centre in Polonezkoy, a village on the wooded outskirts of Istanbul's Asian side, was labelled "clinic of death" by the press after it was reported that the facility did not have a licence to operate as a medical institution, but had been registered as a hotel. According to press reports, there was not a single dietician among Dr Kushan's staff. Dr Kushan is a medical doctor, but not a specialist for diets. The health ministry in Ankara ordered the clinic to be closed a few days after Kurt's death.

Neither Dr Kushan nor a member of his staff was available for comment; the clinic's website was taken offline after the health ministry ordered the facility to shut down. In the Turkish press before the shutdown order came, Dr Kushan said he had done nothing wrong in the case of Kurt. "She was under the same programme like everybody else," he said. Shortly before the death of the woman, a columnist for the daily Hurriyet newspaper, who had visited Dr Kushan's clinic, wrote that she was never properly examined when she started the diet regime. Members of Kurt's family said they would take Dr Kushan to court.

There are many institutions like that of Dr Kushan's, said Murat Bas, head of the department for nutrition and dietetics at Ankara's Baskent University. "Everyone can open a diet clinic," Dr Bas said. In Turkey, diet clinics do not have to be led by a professional dietician, even though in most developed countries they do. According to Dr Bas, there are only 2,000 dieticians in Turkey, a country with a population of 70 million. Dietetics is taught at eight universities, he said, up from three only two years ago.

The dietetics sector is thriving partly because there is a shift in how Turks perceive beauty, Dr Bas said. "I work a lot with young people, and I can say there is a lot of pressure from the media, from clips you see on the internet," he said. "The principle is that being slim is the basis for being beautiful." Dr Bas said there was also pressure in the family and among friends. As a consequence, facilities like Dr Kushan's clinic "are popular, because people want to lose weight not for health reasons, but for aesthetic reasons".

Only 10 years ago, stars on Turkish television were markedly chubbier than they are today. "There has definitely been a change," Dr Bas said. When big stars lose or gain a few kg, the public takes note. Three years ago the singer Sibel Can, who is a superstar in Turkey, made headlines by losing nine kg in five months. Ms Can even published details of her diet, which became known as the "Sibel Can Diet" on Turkish websites. Last month, Turkish media reported that Halil Ergun, a popular actor, had lost 11kg in just 20 days by checking into a diet clinic.

Many Turks do have good reasons to get active and reduce their body mass. About 32 per cent of women and almost 11 per cent of men in Turkey are obese, according to figures provided by the World Health Organization. Hasan Gok, a cardiologist at the Selcuk University in Konya, told Hurriyet that obesity was one of the reasons why Turks had a life expectancy of between 65 and 70 years, while people in developed countries reached 83 to 85 years on average.

But losing weight under medical guidance and for health reasons is a long process that takes months or even years, Dr Bas said. "You have to do this under supervision of a dietician, but people don't know this. I hope this will change now." To counter the pressure to become and stay thin, which people are exposed to in the media and at home, he said, the state should launch information campaigns stressing a healthy nutrition.

"This should start even in kindergarten," he said. @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae