, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 463-492

Not Your “Typical Island Woman”: Anorexia Nervosa is Reported Only in Subcultures in Curaçao

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Abstract

Anorexia nervosa (AN), once thought to be a problem of wealthier, Western countries has now been documented in survey studies and case reports across geographic and economic groups; however, few epidemiological studies including interview have been done on these populations. We report on a comprehensive study on Curaçao, a Caribbean island in economic transition, where the majority of the population is of predominantly black African origin. As part of an epidemiological study on the island of Curaçao indigenous cases of AN were identified. Participants were interviewed and asked to complete standardized measures of eating behaviors and cultural attitudes. In addition, matched controls completed the same measures and were seen in a focus group to assess their knowledge of eating disorders and perceived current and future challenges to young Curaçao women. Six of the nine indigenous cases of AN were successfully traced; all were of mixed race. No cases of anorexia were found among the majority black population. The women with AN were from the high-education and high-income sectors of the society and the majority had spent time overseas. The women with a history of anorexia reported higher levels of perfectionism and anxiety than the matched controls. All of the women reported challenges to maintaining an active professional and personal life and viewed themselves as different from the norm. Women who presented with AN evidenced vulnerability to a triple threat to identity formation: (1) they were of mixed race, aspiring to fit into the mobile elite (and mostly white) subgroup while distancing themselves from the black majority; (2) they had the means for education and travel that left them caught between modern and traditional constructs of femininity; and (3) they had lived overseas, and therefore struggled upon reentry with the frustrations of what was possible within the island culture. The race, class and overseas exposures of the women with anorexia were anything but typical on the island. Cases of anorexia in other developing countries may similarly be limited to specific subgroups, which require specialized treatment and planning efforts.