When Skinny is Too Thin

Many Taiwanese are becoming increasingly concerned for the health of First Lady Chow Mei-ching 周美青 (Christine Chow Ma), who suffered a spinal injury after being bowled over by a group of overenthusiastic children while visiting a primary school in Pingtung 屏東 County on March 3. She was released from the hospital on March 16, but despite repeated Presidential Office reassurances that the First Lady is in good health doctors have ordered two months of additional bed rest, meaning that she had to miss the opening game of Taiwan’s professional baseball league on March 20 (the First Lady is an avid Brother Elephants 兄弟象 fan; they won 1-0). One of her daughters has returned from the U.S. to assist in her care.

The First Lady, a dedicated philanthropist, is in some ways more popular than her husband, whose prestige has suffered from a series of official missteps on policies like the death penalty as well as repeated KMT losses in local elections. Her admirers are particularly worried about media reports claiming that the she currently weighs only 46 kilograms, less than many middle school girls. These fears came to a head following the broadcast of a talk show about the First Lady on ETTV network (東森關鍵時刻), which prompted some viewers to wonder whether she might be suffering from anorexia. Such concerns remain in the realm of unconfirmed speculation, but one sincerely hopes that regardless of the nature of her illness the First Lady will get well very soon.

Perhaps the current discussion can also help focus public attention on the problem of eating disorders, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Taiwan and the rest of East Asia as well. In a moving January 2, 2005 Taipei Times article entitled “Bingeing, Purging, Starving in the Dark”, one of Taiwan’s few specialists in this field, Dr. Chen Kuan-yu 陳冠宇, referred to anorexia as a “hidden problem” due to the fact that cultural stigmas related to emotional disorders prevent many people from coming forward or even discussing their problems with family and friends. This article also quoted an Asian medical journal as stating that the percentage of females suffering from anorexia and bulimia in Japan, South Korea and Singapore might be nearly 1 percent, although Dr. Chen’s own estimate is 0.2 percent for women in Taiwan. This corresponds with extrapolated statistics posted on some websites:

Katz table

Regardless of actual numbers, an increasing number of reports indicate that eating disorders like anorexia are on the rise throughout Asia, including in Japan, Hong Kong, and China. As early as December 9, 1999, a New York Times article from that paper’s “Beijing Journal” entitled “China’s Chic Waistline: Convex to Concave” described the seriousness of this problem, while an October 23, 2006 Chinanews.cn article entitled “Eating Disorders Attacking Girls in China” reported that, “Eating disorders are like ghosts haunting many young women in big cities in China. Many patients even have kept their disease secret from their families for years.”

All this suggests that anorexia and other illnesses are starting to have a major impact on Taiwan and other Asian nations. Unfortunately, however, Taiwan has yet to establish its own branch of the National Eating Disorder Association, while public or private clinics and specialists in treating these disorders are woefully few. Eating disorders like anorexia are monstrous afflictions that sink their claws into men and women of all ages, gradually shredding away their humanity. It is time for committed philanthropists and concerned citizens throughout Asia to devote their energies to alleviating the suffering so many people now endure. Promoting public awareness and acceptance would be a good way to start.

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