Meanings of thinness and dysfunctional eating in black South African females: A qualitative study

  • PF Morris
  • CP Szabo
Keywords: Meanings of thinness, Eating disorders, Non-western, South Africa


Objective: This study qualitatively explored local meanings of thinness and dysfunctional eating in black adolescent females in
the rapidly westernizing socio-cultural context of post-apartheid South Africa.

Method: Four (n=4) urban state highschools in KwaZulu-Natal were selected from which 40 subjects were sampled from Grades 9-12. Focus groups were conducted following a semi-structured interview and analysed using Constant Comparative Analysis.

Results: Subjects reported a wide range of different meanings for thinness, which included traditional idioms of distress and typically western pressures towards thinness, which was particularly evident in the multicultural schools. Subjects also reported a wide range of dysfunctional eating practices (such as purging) which were underscored by a wide range of motivations, including traditional practices and western body image concern; and which did not tend to follow patterns of 'dieting' that are typical in affluent, western societies.

Conclusion: Western pressures towards thinness may be blending with traditional idioms of distress and culturally sanctioned rituals of remedial purging and social over-eating, thereby placing this group at particular risk for a range of dysfunctional eating patterns that may not follow typically western paradigms or diagnostic systems.

Keywords: Meanings of thinness; Eating disorders; Non-western, South Africa


Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1994-8220