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Fat phobic and non-fat phobic anorexia nervosa: a comparative study of 70 Chinese patients in Hong Kong

  • S. Lee (a1), T. P. Ho (a1) and L. K. G. Hsu (a1)

A mixed retrospective–prospective study of 70 Chinese anorexic patients in Hong Kong shows that although they were similar to Western anorexics in most other ways, 41 (58·6%) of them did not exhibit any fear of fatness throughout their course of illness. Instead, these non-fat phobic patients used epigastric bloating (31·4%), no appetite/hunger (15·7%) or simply eating less (12·9%) as legitimating rationales for food refusal and emaciation. Compared to fat phobic anorexics, they were significantly slimmer pre-morbidly (P < 0·0001) and were less likely to exhibit bulimia (P = 0·001). The possible explanations for the absence of fat phobia and the interpretive dilemma this provokes are discussed from historical, pathoplastic and cultural anthropological perspectives. It is argued that anorexia nervosa may display phenomenological plurality in a Westernizing society, and its identity may be conceptualized without invoking the explanatory construct of fat phobia exclusively. As non-fat phobic anorexia nervosa displays no culturally peculiar features, it is not strictly speaking a Western culture-bound syndrome, but may evolve into its contemporary fat phobic vogue under the permeative impact of Westernization. Its careful evaluation may help clarify the aetiology and historical transformation of eating disorder, foster the development of a cross-culturally valid taxonomy of morbid states of self-starvation, and exemplify some of the crucial issues that need to be tackled in the cross-cultural study of mental disorders.

Corresponding author
1Address for correspondence: Dr Sing Lee, Department of Psychiatry, Prince of Wales Hospital, Shatin, Hong Kong.
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