The Correlation of Cultural & Family Dynamics to Disordered Eating in Hispanic & Latin Populations
Cultural Values and Their Effects on Body Positivity
In Hispanic and Latin communities, heritage is celebrated through many facets of cultural traditions, such as communal meals and familial hierarchy and bonds. In fact, family plays a large role for these individuals, with respect for one’s elders being strongly enforced. What the elders of the family say, goes, whether in relation to family matters, political, and societal opinions, or even physical appearance and body types.
The opinions of others quickly become nuanced and complicated to manage, particularly for the younger generation already struggling with their identity, body image, or eating habits as they seek to define who they are in today’s world. For example, it’s common in Spanish-speaking cultures to use special terms of endearment for the ones you love. Sometimes this manifests as older generations teasing younger generations at family gatherings, with names like “Gordo” or “Gordita” – naming family members “fat one” or “fatty” due to their size. When respected family members negatively comment on an individual’s physical appearance, body type, or eating habits, their words can significantly impact that individual.
The effects of what started as a joke can be lasting and detrimental to the quality of someone’s life, especially if the name-calling habit evolves into constant criticism, shame, or a way to hurt someone in an argument. Ultimately, it can contribute to instilling mental health issues by causing individuals to become self-conscious and devalue their self-worth over time. Whether comments are coming from a beloved grandparent, respected family elder, or even a close friend who is insisting someone eat more or enforcing a preferred body figure, these comments and social pressures are harmful and can lead to disordered eating.
American beauty standards and media worsen this issue. Hispanic and Latinx individuals often struggle to find a sense of self between two identities. One identity is their family’s home country’s cultural identity and the other is America’s norms and cultural expectations, both of which pressure individuals to reach unrealistic beauty and body type standards. Popular Latin music stars and other Latin pop culture stars also emphasize the desired body type for women to be curvy but thin, or for men to be strong and muscular. The majority of Reggaeton music idolizes an ideal woman and comments on body sizes or physical assets. The American and Latin influences in media intensify the pre-existing pressures that form eating disorders in Latinx individuals.
With so many mixed messages coming from all around them, it’s no wonder that today’s youth struggle with self-perception within their cultures and families.
Mixed Messages: Body Shaming and an Emphasis on Food
Latin cuisine is world-renowned and, especially in Hispanic and Latin cultures, preparing and sharing food is a way of showing people you care about them and are welcoming them into your home. Food is the focal point of major holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and any other major festivities or accomplishments that are celebrated by gathering the entire family, extended family, and friends around a vast array of dishes. For many families, there is an element of pride when it comes to delighting in someone’s signature dish. Oftentimes, family members are encouraged to eat more, especially as there is a surplus of food. Sometimes, individuals aren’t given a choice and a respected family member continually insists someone eats more of the food they sacrificed days making. This is where the pressures begin. For someone who struggles with disordered eating, these cultural tendencies foster guilt and enable unhealthy eating habits.
Pressures around eating only intensify challenges around mental health and personal presentation, given the cultural values around physical appearance. Weight can be a focus for many, but for those belonging to both American and Hispanic/Latin cultures, there may be extra pressure to achieve a certain weight to fit the ideal body type: small and thin. Yet, herein lies the mixed message: families often gather for large meals and encourage seconds or thirds, but one must also maintain a figure. Sometimes these messages are implied or directly aimed at someone during the meal. Family members may comment on someone’s size or body type, using the coined “endearing” nickname for that person (that usually can be offensive). This combination of teasing and meeting ideal beauty standards can easily lead to shame, loss of appetite, or other unhealthy habits following the meal for the person on the receiving end. In fact, a 2015 study by Alvarez & Fhagen proved that there were cases where teasing and criticism from important family members led a child or adolescent to feel pressured to lose weight to please their elders and to get the teasing to stop (Alvarez & Fhagen 2015).
These are the cultural elements we should aim to improve, as any one of the above-mentioned scenarios could happen in any household. We all should aim to promote kindness and prevent incessant teasing from escalating to manifesting as health struggles in individuals. If teasing like this persists with one targeted family member, it is best to intervene and take the attention away from that individual.
Disordered Eating Habits Can be Instilled at a Young Age
Negative comments, while seemingly harmless, add up over time, especially for adolescent males and females who are facing constant changes to their bodies internally and externally. Particularly for a young girl, the expectation to fit the standard is near impossible while these changes are occurring. How adolescent development is initially treated and addressed at home can determine the future for children and teens. Adolescence is a time of self-discovery, yet today’s youth are bombarded with messaging about what they should look like and who they should be. In some instances, they are facing these external messages while hearing similar messages at home from trusted and valued family members. For example, if a young girl constantly hears her older sisters worrying about their body size and weight, and obsessing over calories, she will adopt the same habits. These habits can then worsen over time and manifest into dangerous eating disorders that may go unnoticed.
While siblings have a big influence, studies show that parents and their relationship with food is where their children’s eating habits are formed. From a young age, children look to their parents to learn behaviors in many things, eating included. Additionally, as these children grow up, they look to their parents to decipher norms in the cultures they belong to. Therefore, if a mom or dad skips lunch or practices restrictive eating habits, their children are more likely to accept this behavior as normal and adopt similar eating habits that prove to be detrimental over time.
The best-known example is the idea that when a mom is on a diet, the whole family suffers while she suffers. When this is mentioned, some may chuckle and relate; however, there is some profound truth to this. A study was conducted to see just how true this was, and Alvarez and Fhagen (2015) found that, “More mother dieting was associated with more family teasing and criticism. This could be attributed to mothers emulating the importance of dieting which leads the family to place higher importance on achieving the ‘ideal body image.’” Thus, proving the harmful effects of family teasing and name-calling and its relation to poor eating habits.
The Inadvertent Promotion of Eating Disorder Culture
As mentioned, the media’s influence heavily supports extreme dieting and thus normalizes eating disorders. Western media initiates the idea that the only desired body types are only the small kind and promotes the obsession with women’s thin bodies. As Hispanic and Latin members attempt to find their sense of self in adopting more American ideals like this, the pressures on both their family heritage side and this new American pop culture side further individuals’ motivations to adopt unhealthy eating habits.
Another factor that reinstates the continuation of disordered eating is the cultural resistance to seeking professional help in Hispanic and Latin communities. Mental health stigmas and religious factors combine to prevent individuals from seeking the help they may need. There is an invisible boundary adopted by Latin communities that insinuates that external discussions of serious or private matters like mental health struggles and disordered eating are prohibited. Rather, what is valued is keeping matters within the family, out of fear of other’s perspectives.
With such sensitive cultural factors at play, how can we begin to reach those underserved Hispanic and Latin community members with respect to their family cultures?
A few ways to combat the challenges those face in the eating disorder community are:
- Be aware of cultural influences and one’s own biases
- Combat the ideas that support toxic diet culture or restrictive eating behaviors
- Counter harmful comments about someone’s size, appearance, or eating habits
- Explore values that are being passed down intergenerationally
- Be understanding and open to others who may need support
It’s important to openly discuss these issues to combat the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding self-care, mental health care, and eating disorder treatment. It is even more crucial to understand the underlying cultural elements at play when it comes to an individual’s eating habits. Furthermore, it’s vital to encourage, seek out, and share research on disordered eating. There is a common stereotype that only Caucasian women have eating disorders, which is unfortunately due to most studies only focusing on this demographic. A lack of research allows for a lack of awareness of different demographics’ needs, meaning that many times Hispanic women and members from other minority groups continue in harmful eating habits undiagnosed and untreated. This is alarming, considering more recent data shows that Hispanic and Latin populations are just as much at risk as other demographics, if not more at risk due to these delicate cultural nuances.
By spreading awareness about these issues, with the understanding and respect of Hispanic and Latin cultural values, those of the community who are struggling can feel more accepted when pursuing healing.
If you or a loved one has struggled with mental health issues, body image, self-worth, or disordered eating, don’t hesitate to reach out to get help. At Galen Hope, we understand these cultural nuances and have many highly trained staff members who culturally empathize with these issues and are trained to help individuals overcome them.
You are not alone, and total healing is possible.
For more information about how Galen Hope can help, visit our site: galenhope.com/what-we-treat/
Based on the presentation given by Alicia Alvarez, MEd, LMHC & Daphne Pozo, DMFT, LMFT for The Alliance in both English and Spanish in 2022. It was also presented in English at the 2023 Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association conference in May of 2023, and will be featured in the Spanish Language track at the 2024 iaedp Symposium.