The risk of eating disorders among Iranian women in Tehran


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Dear Readers,

Iran is one country where we really would like to create awareness of Eating Disorders. We get many visitors from Iran.   Eating Disorders don’t discriminate and affect everyone. Rates of Eating Disorder are unknown in the Muslim World.  If your ED is severe, you may need a  help from mental health service, the problem in Iran is accessing help for eating disorder. There’s lack of awareness and many doctors don’t know enough about Eating Disorders to offer advice and treatment options.  For mental health problems spiritual and holistic haling methods are used. Some of these methods are very effective and really make a difference to sufferers well-being. Few years back, a sufferer very bravely shared her Story of ED and recovery with us. We also know about Leila Shah Pahlavi, daughter of late Shah of Iran, who died as a result of her Eating Disorder and abuse of prescription drugs. In honor of NEDAwareness Week 2016 and World Eating Disorder Day 2nd June 2016, we would like to share this article with our readers to create further awareness of Eating Disorders in Muslim World.  The article below was sent to me by a girl suffering from Anorexia Nervosa in Tehran. We want to raise the awareness and remove the stigma.


Mirroring Nicole Kidman in Tehran

The risk of eating disorders among Iranian women in Tehran and in the Netherlands: this is the topic of psychology student Assieh Ghahvechi Mashhadi’s master’s thesis. Strikingly, the findings indicate that Iranian women in Tehran are slightly more at risk. Western women are often perceived as a role model. The research project appeared as an article in ‘Food, Culture & Society’.

Slim to skinny role models


Nicole Kidman: too thin

Ghavechi Mashhadi established that more Iranian women in Tehran have too low a Body Mass Index than their counterparts in the Netherlands. This in itself does not necessarily mean anything, but a more complete picture emerges thanks to other questionnaires (attitudes towards food and eating, self-confidence). The results obtained from these questionnaires indicated an equally great – or even greater – sensitivity to dieting and eating disorders.

The women were also asked which members of their sex they deemed to have a perfect figure: in the Netherlands and in Tehran both Angelina Jolie (who verges towards being too thin, based on her BMI) and Jennifer Lopez (whose weight is acceptable) were mentioned repeatedly. In Tehran, Nicole Kidman (who is underweight) was also listed, as well as the Iranian actress Hedieh Tehrani (whose BMI is not known).


Cultural influences


Hedieh Therani: no BMI figures available

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are more prevalent in Western countries than in African and Arabic countries, partly due to cultural factors. Prime risk factors are the internalisation of the ideal of thinness and a lack of self-confidence, often in combination with perfectionism and social comparison. The fact that women in Africa and the Middle East are less sensitive to the desire to be slim is because in those countries, a fuller figure is generally associated with beauty, well-being and fertility. Besides, women in those parts of the world, especially in Islamic countries, are more likely to wear loose, figure-obscuring clothes.

In general, women who migrate from African and Arabic countries, for example to the West, run a greater risk of eating disorders as a result of influences from their new environment. This makes the findings relating to Iranian women even more remarkable.


 Iran/Perzia under the Shah


Farah Diba, third wife of the ‘Shah of Persia’

How is it possible, then, for eating disorders to occur in a country with an Islamic government, such as Iran? One explanation is the Western orientation of Iranian women in Tehran before the Islamic revolution of 1979. The wives of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (known abroad as ‘the Shah of Persia’) who was in power until then, were Western fashion icons, especially his third wife, Farah Diba. The mothers of the present generation of young women were strongly influenced by this. After Ayatollah Khomeini seized power, many Iranians fled abroad, including to the Netherlands. Another explanation is that, because of the restrictions imposed by the Iranian government, the younger generation of modern women in Tehran are looking to identify with the Western values of their generation in other countries.

Translated into Farsi

Ghahvechi Mashhadi wanted to complete her research under the supervision of Dr Greta Noordenbos, who works in Clinical Psychology and specializes in eating disorders. Considering Ghahvechi Mashhadi is of Iranian descent herself, the student and the researcher came up with the idea of comparing Iranian women in Iran and the Netherlands. Ghahvechi Mashhadi managed to gather a group of 40 Iranian women in the Netherlands and 59 in Tehran who were willing to participate in the project. They were given various recognized questionnaires (SCOFF and EAT-26 as well as BMI) dealing with the subject of eating, eating habits, weight and self-image. There was already a Farsi (Persian) translation of the EAT test, and Ghahvechi Mashhadi translated the other questionnaires herself.

The article appeared in March under both their names, with Ghahvechi Mashhadi as the first author.

Western export product

The small number of participants means that this is an exploratory research project from which only indicative conclusions can be drawn.

Nonetheless it can be argued that the ideal of thinness is a Western export product which has the development of eating disorders as a possible consequence. Unfortunately, in Iran eating disorders are only recognized at a later stage, as interviews conducted by Ghahvechi Mashhadi with six Tehrani psychiatrists indicate. Because of this patients with an eating disorder often face a long medical journey before their disorder is treated.


About Author

Islam and Eating Disorders founded in 2012 – run by Maha Khan, the blog creates awareness of Eating Disorders in the Muslim world, offers information and support for sufferers and their loved ones.

1 Comment

  1. Joaquim Herbert Cardoso – Adv. disse:Muito tempo não via, por aqui, iniciativa tão interessante quanto essa; que inclua, prlneipaimentc, estudantes, professores, escritores, donos de livrarias e editores. Parabéns a todos os incentivadores e organizadores; que seja um grande início, para uma longa trajetória de sucesso.

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