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Case Reports
, 34 (8), 867-84

'Culture' in Culture-Bound Syndromes: The Case of Anorexia Nervosa

Case Reports

'Culture' in Culture-Bound Syndromes: The Case of Anorexia Nervosa

C G Banks. Soc Sci Med.


Anorexia nervosa is presently considered a Western culture-bound syndrome. A cultural focus on dieting and ideals of thinness for women are assumed to be implicated in the disorder. While research indicates that the majority of non-anorectic women in the United States are preoccupied with body weight and dieting, it is not clear what 'thinness' means to anorectics themselves or that norms about dieting are always involved in subjective experiences of anorexia. Meaning-centered studies of anorectics--especially those in non-clinical settings--are needed to clarify the cultural contexts of the disorder. Case studies of two anorectic women from Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota, show that for some anorectics self-starvation is encoded in religious idioms and symbols about the body, food, and self. A review of the literature illustrates a long-standing relation between self-starvation and religious ideals in Western culture and points to an association between contemporary anorexia nervosa and asceticism. The case studies presented here demonstrate that this asceticism may be subjectively expressed through religious concepts about the body and food and suggest that future research formally investigate the religious practices and beliefs of anorectics seen clinically. The author explores the implications of these findings for definitions of 'normality' and 'abnormality,' key issues in ethnopsychiatry. These findings also suggest that future cross-cultural research might examine asceticism about the body and food in religions other than Judeo-Christian, cultural groups with rituals of fasting and vomiting, and the presence of fundamentalist churches and missionaries in those non-Western cultures for which there are recent reports of eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa's designation as a syndrome limited to Western cultures or to those cultures influenced by them may reflect unexamined assumptions on the part of researchers that dieting and secular ideals of slimness are primarily involved in the disorder.

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