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Soc Sci Med. 1995 Jul;41(1):25-36.

Self-starvation in context: towards a culturally sensitive understanding of anorexia nervosa.

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Department of Psychiatry, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin.


Extreme forms of self-starvation can be traced across time and place, and may be construed using a variety of explanatory models. Curiously, the prevailing biomedical definition of anorexia nervosa has assigned primacy to the exclusive use of 'fat phobia' by the affected subjects to justify their diminished food intake. This paper assembles evidence to show that this culturally constructed version of fat phobic anorexia nervosa has neglected the full metaphorical significance of self-starvation and, when applied in a cross-cultural context, may constitute a category fallacy. By delegitimizing other rationales for non-eating and thereby barring subjective expressions, this regnant interpretive strategy may obscure clinicians' understanding of patients' lived experience, and even jeopardize their treatment. Nonetheless, it is a relatively simple task to attune the extant diagnostic criteria to a polythetic approach which will avert cultural parochialism in psychiatric theory and practice. As a corollary of the archival and ethnocultural study of extreme self-starvation, there is, contrary to epistemological assumptions embedded in the biomedical culture of contemporary psychiatry, no 'core psychopathology' of anorexia nervosa.

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