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Tackling The Myth That Eating Disorders Are A 'White Issue'

The black community "let me hide in plain sight".

08/08/2017 11:53 SAST | Updated 08/08/2017 11:53 SAST

I'm at a birthday party. The cake is being cut and I break out into a sweat as I watch the knife slice through three layers of fatty and sugary goodness. I haven't eaten all day in preparation for a birthday binge, but now that the moment has arrived, I can't bring myself to pile up my plate, every sausage roll and tortilla chip presenting a potential threat to my body.

Such a scenario will not go unnoticed by those who have experienced eating disorders or have an unhealthy relationship with food. Still, even now, I'm reluctant to ever say I had an "eating disorder" for a variety of reasons; the first being that it never got so bad that I was diagnosed or treated, and secondly for a reason I am only just beginning to wrap my head around - people with eating disorders (specifically women that I wrongly used to classify as just "skinny girls") just didn't look like me.

My problem with food started with a need to "fit in". I distinctly remember my embarrassment during my ballet class when my thighs rubbed together every time I placed myself in the first position and because everyone else's didn't, I took it as a sign that there was something wrong with my body, a blemish on a skinny white landscape that I aspired to submerge myself within.

My issues spiralled way into university, and I relished in the new found freedom that no one would care whether I ate nothing all day. I eventually became a vegan when I was 20; mostly because I had watched Cowspiracy twice and I cared about animal rights and the environment etc. etc.; but I also have to confess that part of the reasoning behind my veganism was so that I had a viable excuse to turn down food that was offered to me. The meat and macaroni cheese that was piled on my plate when I went round to a Jamaican family gathering were suddenly untouchable and I finally felt a sense of control over food that had previously had control over me.

There is a common assumption that eating disorders are a "white issue" for which the media (see films like Perfect Body or The Love of Nancy) and lack of understanding in minority cultures are to blame. Women of colour and I observe black women here, in particular, are deemed to be less vulnerable to eating disorders because they have a layer of "cultural protection", given that a fuller figure is celebrated in many African and Caribbean cultures.

The black women in my family have beautiful curvy figures but no matter how many times this was preached about or celebrated, it was something I never wanted- and no amount of cultural pride could have ever saved me from the hegemonic standard of beauty that I was killing myself to achieve.

Perhaps the worst part in all of this is that this is an ignored rather than a completely silent issue. You can find articles on this very topic in obscure online publications and flimsy psychological studies, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone of colour being represented in the dominant conversation about eating disorders.

Although data on the link between eating disorders and race are sketchy, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) notes a study by Robinson et al. that surveyed 6,504 adolescents and found that Asian, Black, Hispanic and Caucasian youth all reported attempting to lose weight at similar rates.

Furthermore, one study also found that anorexia and bulimia, whilst more common in white women in a community sample, were as likely as black women to report binge eating or vomiting, who were also more likely to report fasting and laxative abuse. (Striegel, 2000).

NEDA even admits there is a "persistent belief that eating disorders affect only young, white women", yet despite this current generation constantly pushing for greater diversity in the media, once again the industry seem slow to pick up on the changing face of eating disorders.

Staying silent about people of colour with eating disorders assists in stripping away the last shred of self-worth that the disease has already taken from them.

Intrigued as to how the media would portray the internal battle that I and so many others had or were experiencing, I was hyped when Netflix released To the Bone, starring Lily Collins. Granted, my friend and I did talk over the majority of the film, but from the get-go, the film was just reiterating an insight into eating disorders that I had witnessed time and time again. A white, female character with an eating disorder being helped by other white people- we get it, white people are awesome.

The unfortunate truth is that until the media and subsequent educational resources on eating disorders change their outdated narrative; women of colour who have suffered at the hands of an eating disorder have to start writing their own.

Black women like Stephanie Covington Armstrong, author of Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, have already made those steps to start opening up a wider and much-needed conversation. She says that in the midst of her eating disorder, the black community "let me hide in plain sight". "When I was throwing up 20 times a day," she continues, "no one would have looked at my brown skin and been like 'that poor thing has a problem.' It protected me, in a way."

Violence against black bodies is not always physical, and the way in which eating disorders are represented or aren't, as the case may be, within black communities is a primary example of how racial violence adopts more than one form.

Whilst it is true that eating disorders do not discriminate, the underrepresentation in the media and cultural misunderstanding of people of colour with eating disorders assist in the stripping away of the last shred of self-worth that the disorder has already taken away from the individual affected.

Whilst the statistics may be non-existent and the answers unclear, one thing is for certain- staying silent about this issue is yet another form of violence against people of colour that we, as a community, simply cannot afford to take.