College hosts guest speaker to discuss eating disorders in South Asian communities, offers resources to individuals in need of support


Content Warning: This article discusses eating disorders.

Tuesday, April 25, The HEAL eating disorder recovery and advocacy group and the South Asian Student Association at the College of William and Mary hosted Fatema Jivanjee-Shakir, a Licensed Master Social Worker. Jivanjee-Shakir presented a lecture titled “Eating Disorders in South Asian Communities” and focused on the role of food and body image in South Asian culture, specifically in regard to impacts on eating disorders. 

Jivanjee-Shakir is a licensed New York-based eating disorder therapist. She works with BIPOC clients struggling with eating disorders or body image issues, especially those of South Asian and Muslim backgrounds. Jivanjee-Shakir emphasized her use of the Health at Every Size perspective, a set of principles that values diversity and the overarching impacts of experiences and trauma on the body. 

The Association for Size Diversity and Health describes the Health at Every Size practice as an inclusive approach to health. 

“Health exists on a continuum that varies with time and circumstance for each individual,” the Association’s web page reads. “Health should be conceived as a resource or capacity available to all regardless of health condition or ability level, and not as an outcome or objective of living.”

Jivanjee-Shakir was born and raised in the United States but acknowledged her personal heritage from Gujarat, India.

“There are a lot of different countries that make up South Asia, a lot of different states, territories, and what that also means is that there are also unique cultural practices, languages, etcetera associated with those communities,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “So, what I present today is not all-inclusive of everything that someone might experience or be exposed to. All of our experiences are impacted by multiple intersecting identities.”

Jivanjee-Shakir’s lecture focused on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan. She first introduced statistics on food scarcity in South Asian communities. 

In South Asian culture, food is a way we tend to show love.” 

“There are about 299 million undernourished people within all the South Asian communities,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “South Asia makes up 40% of the world’s hungry population and there have been at least 30 undocumented famines in South Asian history.”

She emphasized food scarcity’s role in intergenerational trauma. Though an individual may not be experiencing food scarcity within their own family, epigenetic research finds passage of trauma through generational lines, thus prompting the brain to view food and other resources as scarce. 

“Broadly speaking, [food scarcity] means the belief that a resource is limited, whether that belief is objective or subjective,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “And when we believe that a resource is limited, we often tend to hyperfocus on wanting to have access to that resource or making it last.”

Jivanjee-Shakir also spoke about the role of food in South Asian culture, specifically in reference to food as an identity marker for things such as socioeconomic status, religion and lineage. She added that people treat food as a love language in South Asian cultures. 

“Some of you may be familiar with love languages — it’s often talked about as things like acts of service and words of affirmation,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “In South Asian culture, food is a way we tend to show love.” 

Due to common food behaviors taught to children, Jivanjee-Shakir emphasized the impact of politeness through restriction on young children and its role in the development of disordered eating habits. 

“From a very young age, many of us are taught to say ‘no’ when something is being offered,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “If you go to someone’s house and they say, ‘Hey, would you like a snack? Would you like something to drink?,’ you’re taught from a young age that you should say no, even if it’s what you want.” 

Jivanjee-Shakir addressed the impact of conflicting messages, which often lead to purging habits through forced regurgitation, excessive exercise or the use of laxatives. In South Asia, the  emphasis on outside appearances and body image lead to increased rates of eating disorders, particularly bulimia nervosa. Jivanjee-Shakir partly attributes the higher prevalence of eating disorders to the spread of conflicting messages regarding food and body weight in both the society at large and one’s own home. 

“We’re often getting these very conflicting messages, even within our own culture and often from the same people,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “These conflicting messages encourage us to eat past the point of fullness, but also telling us, don’t eat too much or you’re going to gain weight, and then you’re going to be undesirable to a future spouse and their family.” 

According to Jivanjee-Shakir, the role of desirability in South Asian culture also relates to colorism, specifically through skin whiteness and removal or lightening of darker body hair. 

“We often discuss how colonization impacted the drive for thinness, but it’s also impacted the drive for whiteness and lightness,” she said. 

Jivanjee-Shakir recommended that skin pigmentation alteration should only be done under the supervision of a dermatologist who can ensure that the application of the product is safe.

“Oftentimes, whether people are avoiding foods or eating foods, it can be seen as being rooted in diet culture, that it’s about calories, fats and carbs, but there is a lot of folklore around ‘What are foods that will lighten your skin versus darken your skin?’’ Jivanjee-Shakir said. 

Though there is no scientific basis for associating certain foods with skin lightening, many individuals associate and market them as such, promoting colorism through false advertisement. 

Jivanjee-Shakir also spoke about religion’s role in the potential promotion of disordered eating. Though the presentation is not meant to speak on all religions, she recognized that in the majority of South Asian religious cultures, the predominant suggestion is for practicing individuals to dress moderately.

“If you live in a country where your religion is not the dominant religion, it can feel really alienating and lonely to dress in a certain way, to go out into the world and wear your religious clothing when other people around you aren’t wearing it,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “This can lead to more desire to control your body.”

Additionally, Jivanjee-Shakir acknowledged the struggle of individuals with eating disorder habits who practice a religion that incorporates fasting. She encouraged those individuals who cannot engage in fasting practices to turn to further resources from religious scholars on the wellness of the body and the soul. 

“If it’s something that someone is wanting to explain, I think there’s a lot of different blogs and YouTube videos that I’ve found from religious scholars,” Jivanjee-Shakir said. “There’s one video where one of the Islamic leaders is talking about how the goal in the religion is the protection of the body and the soul, and so if you are fasting and it’s hindering your ability to do that right, that’s an exception.”

Jackson Kubin ’25 reflected on his experience at the lecture. 

“My grandparents are refugees from Eastern Europe and the speaker’s point about intergenerational trauma related to food scarcity really resonated with me, and the two-sided expectation to be slim and also eat well was familiar,” Kubin said. “However, the convergence of colorism, colonialism and religious influences in South Asia was something that made sense to me, but I had never heard it articulated so well.” 

Jivanjee-Shakir concluded the lecture by sharing resources to counseling accounts on Instagram that focus primarily on South Asian clientele, as well as offering a link to her own account and website.


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