Growing up as a Black American female within a predominantly Hispanic Community (El Paso, TX), eating disorders were something I had never heard of. Some of us (myself included) engage(d) in disordered eating due to the intrinsic and/or extrinsic pressure to fit into a culture or group of people who were different from us. I understand how the pressures of fitting in, going unnoticed, erasing or making up for “wrongs” within ourselves (race/ethnicity, body type, weight, etc.), or gaining things (acceptance, career, happiness, relationships, etc.) could trigger disordered eating in young black and brown girls. It seems easy to slip into thinking and feeling like the way God created you, isn’t enough... especially when it comes to the white standard of beauty. What would the result then be? “I have to change something about myself, otherwise I’m defective.” According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “Eating disorders have historically been associated with heterosexual, young, white females, but in reality, they affect people from all demographics of all ethnicities at similar rates. People of color – especially African Americans – are significantly less likely to receive help for their eating issues.”
When it came to attractiveness, I did not feel I fit the mold of ideal beauty. It was not until I was well into my high school years when I started to feel attractive. I grew up playing sports, so body size and body type was not something I was aware of. Almost everyone I knew, with the exception of few, including best friends, close friends, and church friends, all played sports. We all had different body types, but we were all relatively in shape. In contrast, I came from a family of women who paid a great deal of attention to their weight and appearance. In fact, I was not allowed to leave my home without wearing earrings… it was a spoken rule. Imagine hearing the closest women to you, including your mother, aunts, and grandmother, constantly discussing their sizes, shapes, likes and dislikes of their physical appearance. What is crazy is that these are beautiful, black, gorgeous women! Hearing these beloved family members devote so much energy into their physical appearance taught me it was something to pay attention to. When your family struggles with body image, you would think this might be an area assessed at least by our Pediatricians or Primary Care Physicians (PCPs), but “People of color with self-acknowledged eating and weight concerns were significantly less likely than white participants to have been asked by a doctor about eating disorder symptoms, despite similar rates of eating disorder symptoms across ethnic groups” (Becker, 2003). It is interesting to think that as a black or brown girl or woman, the likelihood of disordered eating being assessed and treated by a doctor, even if we were aware and advocated on our behalf, still likely would not result in treatment.
I did not become aware of my body until I went off to college and was granted the opportunity to run track. I will never forget the day my teammates and I had our body fat percentage taken. I, along with my closest friend, were officially the fattest on the team at a whopping 15% body fat. To put that into perspective, according to Livestrong.com, a normal body fat percentage for a female athlete is between 14% and 20%. Still, somehow, I felt fat because I was made aware that I was literally the fattest on the team. Those numbers have stuck with me to this day. From that moment on, I considered myself fat, and my weight now became something to work on. I went on to struggle in my track season with injuries. I then moved back home and struggled with severe asthma, which resulted in many Prednisone prescriptions and a new problem with weight. For those who do not already know, Prednisone makes you put on weight, and that was not easy to adjust to when you are a runner/sprinter. This ultimately ended my dream of running track, and I was fatter than I had ever been before.
After this pivotal moment, my focus/purpose in life changed. I started focusing on my career, which was securely fastened to the field of psychology. I was secure in my dream of being in the mental health field as I threw myself into my psychology program and the McNair program. My draw to mental health started at an early age. I took a psychology class in high school, which solidified my dream to work in psychology. With all of my learning and research interests in the field of mental health, you would think I would have an inkling of something being wrong, but I did not. There was a moment in college when I experienced the most stress than I ever had before. The McNair Program required time devoted to everything from etiquette classes to creating, conducting, publishing, and presenting our research studies at Penn State or CAL Berkley. To say I was stressed was an understatement. Not only was I in this program, but I was also pledging Delta Sigma Theta, working a part-time job, and participating in church activities.
I started to have stomach issues. Pains in my intestines brought me down to my hands and knees each and every time I attempted to eat or drink something. It actually felt like someone took a knife and sliced my intestines the entire way down anytime I ate or drank something. I would cry and pray for the pain to stop. I ended up being diagnosed with gastric reflux and prescribed Nexium (I needed a prescription at the time). However, I had no time to waste on stomach issues, as I had never been this busy and stressed before in my life. I have a weird obsessive feeling when it comes to certain aspects of my life, including being meticulous about medications I put into my body. Instead of relying on medication, I focused on altering my diet to control the symptoms. Sometimes, I felt I had a handle on the triggers and other times, I did not. At some point, it became a sort of competition to me, where I began restricting my diet more and more. This competition was my home and comfort zone. It was tied to my self-worth. I can do anything, especially if it is a competition! I started losing weight and enjoyed the way I looked. This became a pattern I continued throughout the most stressful years of college until graduation in 2006. I am reminded of just how bad this disordered eating became on two different occasions. The first was when I eventually got myself to the point of eating one granola bar per day. I had no idea at the time how the disordered eating affected my energy levels, attention span, and overall focus. Instead, I became fixated on how small I was becoming… and that is how my journey with disordered eating began. The second (what should have been a red flag moment) was during my move to Houston when I visited to apply for jobs, in the event I was granted a job interview. During this time, it started as most of my intense red flag moments do: as a competition with myself. I wanted to spend the least amount of money on my stay in Houston, so I challenged myself to make a 3-piece chicken tender meal from Church’s Chicken last an entire week. I am not proud of it now, but back then, that was a huge success! Not only was I saving money, but I was also maintaining a super tiny figure.
I had never met anyone like me. I had never met another person of color who struggled with eating the way that I did, and quite frankly, I did not see it as a problem until more than a decade later. By this time, I was married and had given birth to two children. I had also learned how to do juice feasts in order to lose weight in short periods of time, so I engaged in juice feasts from time to time. I once had a close co-worker/friend tell me one day, “You better not lose another pound.” Coming from him, this meant something to me and served as a wake-up call. Not to mention, this was coming from a man, which somehow meant more at the time. Again, you would think this would be a sign of a bigger problem… such as an eating disorder, but it was not to me. I just needed to stop attaching my eating to my weight and instead attach it to my overall health and wellness. I was working in the field of mental health, helping people with all types of disorders. However, my main population was minority clients with a low SES (socioeconomic) status. Eating disorders just were not something I came across often, and when I did, I most certainly did not fully understand them.
It was not until I started working for the Houston Eating Recovery Center (ERC) that I understood eating disorders through the lenses of clients struggling with disordered eating. I spent more time with these clients than my own children, leading to a very close bond with these extremely talented clients. They helped change my perspective from “Just eat *insert eye roll*” to understanding the magnitude of thoughts and feelings tied into a perfect knot of control and self-worth. I once had a client tell me she punished herself by not eating because she did not feel worthy of taking up space. Her goal was to make herself smaller and smaller. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “What is the most fatal mental disorder? The answer, which may surprise you, is anorexia nervosa. It has an estimated mortality rate of around 10 percent. What is the cause of this high rate of mortality? The answer is complicated. While many young women and men with this disorder die from starvation and metabolic collapse, others die of suicide, which is much more common in women with anorexia than most other mental disorders.”
Again, the majority of my clients at Houston ERC were within the majority population and of European descent. Eating disorders in the black community was never something on my radar. What resonated with me the most when it came to my culture and where I come from was when I started to work with clients who struggled with binge eating disorder (BED). BED is something I watched members of my family struggle with my entire life… constantly engaging in the push, pull, and rotation of binging and dieting. I would watch them overeat and then become upset with themselves. This was something I saw a lot of in my black community and in other minority communities. However, I saw myself in the clients who struggled with restricting their food intake, although those clients often didn’t look like me, making it hard to recognize myself as being a part of, or even similar to their struggle. I was especially different from what I thought would fit my mold and culture when it came to binge eating. It was not until years later that I accepted the fact that I, too, struggle with disordered eating.
I say all of this to let it be known that disordered eating is prevalent in the black community. It is just not brought to our attention. Whether it is struggling with restricting your food intake or a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, both are variations in intensity when it comes to disordered eating. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “We often hear about the epidemic of obesity and the health consequences of over-eating, but the perils of anorexia and bulimia are less recognized.” Whether it is simply struggling with overeating or bulimia nervosa, where people overeat/binge, then purge the contents to compensate. Whether it is frequently overeating or BED, where people tend to eat large amounts of food in a short period of time with an apparent lack of control. We have all likely had experiences with overeating, but binging and purging can become a much bigger problem than just that. Again, I was taught to think of purging as righting a wrong, which then seems to escalate into a way to right wrongs emotionally, and cognitively. It is rooted in control and is easy to fall into when everything else in our lives seems out of control. At the end of the day, eating disorders and disordered eating come in many different forms. According to NEDA, “Women of color in the United States face substantially more stress resulting from their membership in multiple subordinate groups than that caused by acculturation alone. Eating disorders in women of color may be, in part, a response to environmental stress (i.e., abuse, racism, poverty). Therefore, given the multiple traumas that women of color are exposed to, they may be more vulnerable to eating disorders.” For this reason and this reason alone, we should pay attention to this area when raising our children and when it comes to our eating behavior and habits.
If you are experiencing displeasure as it relates to eating, changing your body, or on a deeper emotional level, it may be worth talking to someone who is licensed and able to help you process the underlying thoughts and feelings related to your struggles. Eating disorders were unrecognizable to me when it came to the Black and Minority communities, as well as within myself. I truly believe we struggle at a high level but are just unaware. If this reaches anyone, you are not alone, and there is help.
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Licensed Professional Counselor