Anorexia Nervosa in North America

The article I found is called “’Culture’ in Culture-Bound Syndromes: the Case of Anorexia Nervosa” by Caroline Giles Banks.  In this article, Banks explores a cultural cause of Anorexia in the United States that is often not considered.  Often, anorexia is expressed in more secular terms and associated with dieting to obtain the cultural ideal of thinness.  Banks looks at two case studies of religious women previously diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.  Through participant observation and interviews, Banks came to understand their anorexia as being related to their religious beliefs and practices.  Both women studied showed that “self-starvation can be expressed by contemporary anorectics in the West though religious symbols and idioms about food and the body” (881).  In the cases of Margaret and Jane (the two women studied), they “do not see themselves as ‘sick’ or ‘anorectic’.  Rather, they understand their starvation as a literal attempt to meet the normative ideals about controlling the body provided by their religious traditions” (881).

The biological components of anorexia can be seen clearly in the resulting physical complications of not eating such as hypotension, lanugo, and bradycardia.  Unfortunately, as what is considered a mental disorder, the biological causes of anorexia are unclear.  “Medical researchers who take a biological approach to anorexia generally seek to located the cause of anorexia in abnormalities in mechanisms regulating hormone output that have biochemical influences on eating behavior and weight control” (870).   The individual choice aspect of anorexia has to do with the individual’s choice of eating and exercise behaviors.  Additionally, each individual’s health seeking behavior and understanding of what a proper body should be like can affect the prevalence and characteristics of each case of anorexia.

Treatment must be individualized because each individual understands the body in a different way and has a different relationship with food and exercise as the others.  According to Banks, “Treatment can only be successful the extent to which medical practitioners begin to recognize alternative cultural explanations for symptoms as well as the role of culture in their own diagnostic and biomedical systems” (881).  Overall, treatment must be done on a per-case basis because all individuals have a different relationship with their own culture and cultural ideals and practices leading to their experience with anorexia.

Caroline Giles Banks, ‘Culture’ in culture-bound syndromes: The case of anorexia nervosa, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 34, Issue 8, April 1992, Pages 867-884, ISSN 0277-9536, 10.1016/0277-9536(92)90256-P.

1 thought on “Anorexia Nervosa in North America

  1. I do not personally believe that Anorexia should be regarded as a CBS. The act of starving oneself is used around the world in different cultural and religious ceremonies. It can be used to strengthen one’s relationship with God (if that is your belief) or even as a way of dieting. However, it is when the act of starving yourself begins to negatively affect your health, that it becomes a problem. Using anorexia as a form of dieting can increase your self esteem and make you more confident. It can also be addictive and cause serious negative side effects, including death, if not used properly. In America, we tend to notice Anorexia only when it gets to this serious addictive stage. Only when it becomes a major hazard to a persons’ health do we really think of it as Anorexia. Yet people all around the world starve themselves on a normal basis for any number of reasons and they are not usually considered sick or anorexic.
    In other culture Anorexia can be seen as a necessity, a way of life for certain individuals. It can be a rite-of-passage or even a traditional occurrence in rituals. In other ethnomedical systems Anorexia can be seen as a way to get closer to God or as a psychological problem.

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