Why Black women are silently struggling with eating disorders
This isn’t a new issue
Think about a girl with an eating disorder. Think about her personality, social ranking, looks, and reason for developing the disorder. That girl isn’t Black is she? In fact, how often do you hear of a Black woman with an eating disorder?
I’ve been dealing with disordered eating since I was eight or so years old and I’m 22 now. I’ve spoken to a therapist, cried to countless friends, and pieced together a community of people going through the same thing. It’s a deep-seated issue that is a melting pot of anxiety, perfectionism, and a skewed sense of self.
I’m a Black woman with an eating disorder, and I know there are other Black women like me. Yet I have still never seen a film about a Black woman with an eating disorder, nor any viral mainstream coverage, even after all those middle school health classes.
20 million women — 1/7th of the women in America — have an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder website
Now here’s the disappointing part — there’s no estimate of how many Black women in America were suffering from eating disorders. We're not profiled as our own entity, as the stats group Black women with other women of color.
Annette Ejiofor, a 22-year-old Black woman from Canada, said that her family didn’t notice anything when she was suffering from EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), just that she was losing weight.
She said: “In most African families, discussions of the sort are brushed aside. When I brought up the fact that I was depressed, my family laughed it off.”
Why are Black women with eating disorders not taken as seriously?
My eating disorder started in elementary school. A family member told me I looked pregnant and I wasn’t the same after that. I went through all kinds of phases — binge eating, under eating, fasting, and honestly, I’m still not OK. Talking to my family about it was hard and I was met with denial and resistance when I opened up about the battles I was facing. Since then, I’ve been hyper aware about the way disorders are dealt with by the people closest to those who are going through it, and also visibility of stories surrounding the topic.
Body Image therapist Jennifer Rollin said the lack of tenderness and media coverage about Black women and ED makes them feel “isolated” and “ashamed".
She said: “I think eating disorders are vastly misunderstood. One of my passions is raising awareness about ‘the face of eating disorders,’ which could be someone of any gender, race, age, body weight, or socioeconomic status. I think it does Black women a lot of harm when they feel that their struggle isn't represented in the media or public discussion."
There is immense pressure placed on Black women and their bodies
Being curvy, but only curvy in the “right places” is a big deal in our community and because of it, we suffer. We learn to compare our bodies to the other’s before we learn about our own. We are expected to have certain features and laughed at if we don’t. Being told as a kid that my butt was shaped incorrectly and my belly was too big hurt and sent me spiraling.
Another thing that makes the experience different is treatment. Going to a rehabilitation center as a Black woman was not an option for me. It wasn’t suggested (and I couldn’t afford it, either). Black girls are told by family members to “pray it away” as opposed to receiving professional help or worse, we’re made to feel like it’s not a real issue and we need to snap out of it. Family members can be guilty of impeding the healing process with comments that make it seem like eating disorders are imaginary.
Black women grow up without proper representation of the Black female body
When I realized had a problem and needed to start healing immediately, I read material about eating disorders. I tried to make a mental Venn diagram about the factors that cause eating disorders and my own experiences. Being put down by a a family member definitely played a part.
I went to a predominately white school and that put me in a weird space as far as sound representation of the Black female body goes. There weren’t many Black girls, and a few of the Black girls were dancers/cheerleaders who trained rigorously, so I didn’t know how my body type fit into the equation. This started a 15-year war with food, my mindset, and body image.
22-year-old Awar Obob grew up feeling different too, saying she was the “tallest and fattest kid in classes.” We were both born into families that have had problems with eating disorders. Both of Awar's parents have eating disorders.
“We're very open and my mom guides me through a lot of what I deal with because she's been there before,” she said.
According to Rollin, eating disorders are seen across multiple generations. “This makes sense because of the genetic aspect, and also that eating disorder behaviors might be modeled across generations,” she said.
How does the history of the relationship between Black people and food factor in?
This isn’t an issue that sprung up within the last century though — you have to factor in the history of the relationship between Black people and food in America in general.
We’re not from America, slavery brought us here and stripped us of our eating habits and diet. Author Patricia B. Mitchell discusses the type of food Black slaves ate in her book, Plantation Row Slave Cabin Cooking: The Roots of Soul Food. It speaks on the “feast” or “famine” mindset, which is the tendency to either binge eat or eat too little. Black people not only had to deal with the trauma of being sold, brutalized, and overworked, but also dealt with the physiological and emotional oppression that comes along with a cruelly regulated diet. All that to say that eating habits have been toyed with from the literal second Black women entered the country.
Black women with eating disorders exist. We are here and we are hurting. Our experiences are not only real, but they are unique and deserve to be treated as such.
If you’re suffering from an eating disorder, here are a few female therapists to reach out to: Ruchi Amin (NYC based), Abigail McFarlane (LA), Alison Pelz (TX) and the National Eating Disorder Hotline – (800) 931-2237.
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