Black Women & Eating Disorders: A Wake Up Call

Posted: June 3, 2014 in Shorts

By the age of 12, I was counting calories. I would only eat yogurt and fish, and plastered my walls with images from women’s magazines, perhaps using fashion to escape family difficulties. I adored some black models, but most of the women I compared myself to at that tender age were white and terribly thin. I did not realize then that I was teetering on the verge of developing eating habits that might have ruined my life. Luckily, when I got to high school this obsession died away. Many young black women are not so lucky.

Kaelyn Carson was a beautiful, high-achieving black woman who died of anorexia at the age of 20 in 2001. When she passed away she was 5’ 8” and weighed only 79 pounds. Her tragedy might seem like an extreme case, but the reality is that African-American women are increasingly affected by eating disorders at an alarming rate. The medical establishment and our own community are just painfully slow to catch on.

Many blacks still think of eating disorders as “a rich white woman’s problem,” but this is a misconception. Essence magazine conducted a survey in 1994 to bring awareness to the issue and found that among its respondents, a startling 53.5 percent were at risk for developing an eating disorder. The study also revealed that 15 percent of black women suffer from some kind of eating issue, mirroring the statistic of white women with eating disorders exactly.

What may differ between black and white women are the ways in which eating disorders are expressed, but not their prevalence. In the study, “Recurrent Binge Eating in Black American Women,” researcher Ruth H. Striegel-Moore and her associates discovered that binge eating actually occurs more often for African-American females than whites. In addition, she uncovered the fact that binge eating followed with the abuse of laxatives or fasting is more likely to be engaged in by our group.

It is time for the black community and health care professionals to acknowledge these facts, because the lack of awareness of black women with eating disorders poses a barrier to those needing help.

In a 2005 interview with Ebony Magazine, eating disorder specialist Dr. Gayle Brooks stated that African-American women suffering from eating disorders have to fight harder to get adequate treatment from those who often fail to diagnose their illnesses properly. Other studies have found that African-Americans are not only less likely to be correctly diagnosed with an eating disorder; they are also the least likely to be included in studies on these diseases.

This invisibility of African-American females cannot help but interfere severely with our diagnosis and treatment. It is important to receive the proper diagnosis, so that one can start on the road to recovery, which includes receiving treatment for the underlying emotional issues behind the disorder, and getting support towards rebuilding healthy eating habits. These steps are almost impossible to enact without the acknowledgment and expertise of doctors and other professionals. This might have been what happened to Kaelyn Carson. More awareness of eating disorders among black women might have saved her life.

Medical experts may not be aware of this reality, but that is no reason for our community to remain blind. We are used to assuming that all black women feel none of the pressure that white women do to look unhealthily thin, but that is no longer the case. In her Ebony interview, Dr. Brooks related: “We’re noticing a trend of more severe eating disorders among African-American young girls. And this trend is going to continue as the whole African-American culture becomes immersed in White European cultural values. Today it’s extremely difficult for an African-American girl to be insulated within the Black community so that she is not affected by the values of the dominant society.” In addition, as more black women seek to compete in the “white” corporate world, the pressure to be stick thin to fit in has grown.

With our greater mainstream integration has come this terrible side-effect. Eating disorders are no longer a “white woman’s disease.” If we are willing to face this cultural shift, we can intervene when eating disorders threaten our loved ones. We can support those who need treatment, so that they do not feel that they are acting outside our cultural norm by seeking help. Plus, we can and should band together to demand that doctors and therapists acknowledge our issues and provide fair treatment.

But all of this can only happen if we open our eyes to the fact that black women with eating disorders are real, and are part of a growing group.

Have you or a loved one suffered from an eating disorder? Did you find your family and doctors helpful or unable to properly help?

Book: ‘Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat’
Stephanie Covington Armstrong does not fit the stereotype of a woman with an eating disorder. She grew up poor and hungry in the inner city. Foster care, sexual abuse, and overwhelming insecurity defined her early years. But the biggest difference is her race: Stephanie is black.

Study: A True Picture of Eating Disorders Among African-American Women
A review of published studies reveals a serious deficit in scope of eating disorders among African American women.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders is the oldest non-profit in the country dedicated to alleviating and preventing eating disorders.

National Eating Disorders Screening Program
The National Eating Disorders Screening Program (NEDSP) focuses on the three main types of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. The goal of the program is to both raise the level of awareness about eating disorders and to encourage people who may be suffering from eating disorders to seek further help and treatment.

Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness
The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness is a non-profit organization working to prevent eating disorders and promote a positive body image, free from weight preoccupation and size prejudice.

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