On eating disorders, body image and black women

28th August 2009

On eating disorders, body image and black women

In conversations on body image and eating disorders, black women are often left out of the debate– it’s assumed that by virtue of their skin color, black women are somehow rendered immune to those ubiquitous pressures that plague white women (I would argue that the reverse might also be true: that because of racism, black women are even more conscious of and sensitive to how they present themselves and are perceived by others.) Here’s a round-up of recent news that shows that while no one ethnic or cultural group has a monopoly on eating disorders and/or body image insecurities, distinct social forces act in altogether different ways in influencing the self-esteem, health and happiness of women of color.


Stephanie Armstrong - Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat

Remember the study from a few months back in which it was found that black girls and girls from low-income families are more likely to develop bulimia than their wealthier white counterparts?  Playwright and screenwriter Stephanie Armstrong is helping to fill a gap in the noticeably lacking eating disorder memoirs genre with her new book, Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat: A Story of Bulimia. Armstrong — now a recovered, married mother of one in her mid-40s — documents her descent into bulimia in her early 20s and describes her struggles as a black woman with a disorder consistently portrayed as a white woman’s disease, as well as why black women often do not seek traditional therapy for emotional problems.  The work is being hailed as the first book by and among black women about eating disorders.

The Boston Herald has some background information on the project here and be sure to check out Armstrong’s website at  The book, released Aug. 1, is available online at Amazon.


Check out the trailer below for Chris Rock’s new documentary Good Hair, set for release in U.S. theaters on Oct. 9.  The comedian extraordinaire was inspired to take a humorous look at the tangled political web of black women and hair after his daughter Lola came up to him crying and asked, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”

For more on the the snarled politics of black hair, check out Dianne Longwood’s awesome post from last month. As she explains:

Few of us are truly at ease with the coarse hair texture that comes courtesy of our African roots. In the beauty spectrum, our natural hair isn’t even on the map. Given the option, most Black girls would gladly wake up with a full, flowing head of hair instead of the short, hard-to-grow variety that is often our birthright.

Men like hair, so women who don’t have much of their own go buy some. To be called fake sends the message: If you’re not born with it, you’re not worth it. This is reinforced when some Black people use now-common terms like “good hair” to describe hair with texture as far from African as possible.


Vogue Italia hoped to piggyback on the success of last year’s Black Issue by featuring a fashion spread of black Barbie dolls in its July magazine. The spread is, no doubt, inspired by Barbie’s 50th anniversary and comes on the heels of the introduction of Mattel’s new line of So In Style African-American Barbies that feature fuller lips, wider noses and curly hair. Vogue’s spread and the new black Barbies are meeting with mixed reactions from some black bloggers.

Writes Loryn Wilson of

…I like the concept of using all Black Barbies in a Vogue spread. But I have to wonder if it is actually a step backwards. Barbies themselves use the white female body as a the prototype for beauty. Even the new Black Barbies do not have the hips, ass and curves that myself and other Black women possess. It’s great that Mattel has barbies of all shade, but what about all sizes? What taking into consideration that other races and ethnic groups have different ideas of what women’s bodies actually look like? The fashion industry often creates fashions, ad campaigns, and yes, even Barbie photo spreads that leave Black female bodies out of the equation and therefore, out of the question when defining what a “perfect body” looks like and who is able to possess it.

The Root’s Raven L. Hill counters:

Aside from the appearance, the doll’s interests are both fun and scholarly—one doll prefers science and drill team while another one likes art and journalism. The dolls come in pairs of big and little sisters to encourage mentoring relationships.

They may not be mirror-perfect, but they come closer to the fantasy than my childhood playthings… I would want these dolls for my daughter.


Share your own comments, related links and personal experiences in the comments below.

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 28th, 2009 at 1:59 pm and is filed under Arts and Music, Body Image, Body Politic, Book Reviews, Bulimia, Fashion, Pop Culture, Race Issues, Recovery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 15 responses to “On eating disorders, body image and black women”

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  1. 1 On August 28th, 2009, littlem said:

    Um, Rachel?

    Any chance of some bloggers of color on this issue, like sparkymonster, or one of the ladies from Jezebel?

  2. 2 On August 28th, 2009, Rachel said:

    @littlem: What’s wrong with the three bloggers of color I quoted in my post? Anyone is free to post in the comments and I especially welcome comments and insight from POC on these issues.

  3. 3 On August 28th, 2009, Alyssa (The 40 year-old) said:

    I’m not a POC (seriously, I’m so white I’m practically transparent!)but my kids are 1/2 white and 1/2 Asian (my husband is Filipino). We live near San Francisco, so it’s not really an issue here, but I do wonder about how they will feel in the future, when they’re older. I hope that the world will have changed enough so that it’s not a huge deal, and I hope they are proud of their heritage. Both sides of it.
    As fay as Barbie goes, I’m on the fence. Yes, it’s great that she comes in different shades, but I wonder if she will have a negative influence on even more girls?

  4. 4 On August 28th, 2009, Isabella said:

    I’m from Panama and I had my hair relaxed once when I was 16 and it was a complete nightmare, my grandmother didn’t mind because my hair is already “good” enough on account of the fact that my mom made a smart choice in my bio-dad. I showed my mom the trailer for Good Hair and she started telling me about how she’s had her hair relaxed for 33 years (since she was 12) except for a few years in college when she had a natural afro. She’s had to sleep in hair rollers and still fears the rain. I like the fact that the movie is a comedy because it may not alienate so many people and bring forward the topic of how women of color are affected by media representations and Caucasian ideals. As for me, I’ll keep my naturally curly hair as healthy as possible thanks, no more straightening and highlighting!

  5. 5 On August 28th, 2009, Cheddar said:

    Barbies themselves use the white female body as a the prototype for beauty. Even the new Black Barbies do not have the hips, ass and curves that myself and other Black women possess.

    It would seem that stereotyping isn’t just the province of White people. (Not white people.)

  6. 6 On August 29th, 2009, Claudia said:

    Have you seen this blog over at gurze?

  7. 7 On August 30th, 2009, PlusSizedFeminist said:

    I am a black woman, and I am very interested in all three topics featured.

    As a survivor of anorexia, I can tell you that this disease IS often portrayed as a “white woman’s disease.” There is the conception that black women don’t have to worry about being skinny because it is more accepted to be bigger in the black community, which is somewhat true, but the media does affect us all…

    With the hair thing, this needs to be said as much as possible until little black girls know that their hair IS beautiful, at ANY texture. Because the standard of beauty now is long flowing STRAIGHT hair, little black girls grow up quite envious of their white counterparts who can rock their long hair in ponytails. When my hair got long enough for a proper ponytail (mind you I am 20 now, and my hair wasn’t long enough until FRESHMAN YEAR), I was ECSTATIC. I even took PHOTOS. It was that serious. My roommate looked at me like I was insane.

    I was the only person of color on my side of the dorm, and my roommates finally got the courage to ask me about my hair. I told them the details, and the look on their faces was priceless. They were like “YOU DO ALL THAT TO YOUR HAIR????” @_@ They were speechless because they could not fathom the amount of work needed to maintain my hair. Now even though I do have a relaxer in my hair (chemical straightening for those who don’t know), I do not put anyone down who has a natural hairstyle. Unfortunately too many black women fight about it, with the natural side claiming that black women with relaxers are “trying to be white” and those with relaxers claiming that natural hair is ugly….the rift is HUGE…..and there is much animosity…

    Black Barbie? I’m skeptical about it. Does this doll REALLY look like me? Barbie dolls already have a bad rap due to the “Doll Test”

    50 years ago, they did an experiment with children, and the results pretty much came out that black children have a bad perception of their skin color. And 50 years later….the results…are the same… The doll that is the “good doll” was usually the white doll. The “bad doll” was usually the black. And the reason why? “Because they have dark skin…” Black children are growing up hating their own skin color….Will black barbie finally become the “good doll?” I don’t know. Only time, an open mind, and a willingness to teach children that beauty comes in all colors will bring change.

  8. 8 On August 30th, 2009, nothingqueen said:

    As a white person, “black hair” doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. Blanket statements like that are what really make me uncomfortable. I know Chris Rock likes to paint whitey as uptight Nazi’s, but the straightening and “conditioning” is what’s worth the ire.
    I am, however, very glad this movie was made.

  9. 9 On August 31st, 2009, Rachel said:

    There was a great article in this week’s Time magazine about Michelle Obama’s hair — check it out here. Here’s a snippet:

    “The choice many black women make to alter their hair’s natural texture has undeniable historical and psychological underpinnings. It has been attributed to everything from a history of oppression and assimilation to media-influenced notions of beauty and simple personal aesthetics. But one thing is certain. For the many who wear straightened styles like Michelle’s, the decision is deliberate, and the maintenance is significant.

    Just as blond has implicit associations with sex appeal and smarts (or lack thereof), black-hair descriptors convey thick layers of meaning but are even more loaded. From long and straight to short and kinky — and, of course, good and bad — these terms become shorthand for desirability, worthiness and even worldview.”

  10. 10 On August 31st, 2009, Your questions for Stephanie Armstrong » said:

    [...] in an interview here and I’m soliciting readers’ questions to submit to her.  I blogged about Armstrong last Friday — she’s the author of the new memoir Not All Black Girls Know How [...]

  11. 11 On August 31st, 2009, Alex said:

    Nothing makes me happier than seeing a woman with her “natural” hair, whatever that may be. So many women–white, black, Indian, Asian–alter their hair in ways that are saddening.

    I am a white woman with stick-straight hair. Because my mother and grandmother constantly maligned me for hair that to them looked like limp spaghetti, I wasted hours every morning before school winding it into hot rollers.

    I think there’s a lot of pressure on women of all races to transform their hair into something “sexy” and pleasing to men. Usually this means blonde, long, and with the perfect amount of wave.

    This isn’t to say that using hair as a form of expression is bothersome to me–I think women with short hair or crazy-colored hair are totally badass for not living up to a standard. I guess to me, the problem lies in feeling obligated to conform in order to feel beautiful.

  12. 12 On September 1st, 2009, Kat said:

    It saddens me that people think that one colour hair is better/worse/more/less beautiful….

    I have naturally curly hair, in a colour red that apparently “some women would kill for”…why? I don’t understand why one colour is so desireable. I must confess with some shame that I’ve only recently become aware that is hair an issue for black women. I’d always seen black women and little black girls with their natural hair and it always looked beautiful to me. Hair should always be a source of pride, never a source of shame. It often shows your ancestry/heritage and that should always be a source of pride. I mean, crikey, it’s not like we women will run out of things to be ashamed of….

  13. 13 On September 2nd, 2009, gina said:

    I was not hired at first for my job because I didn’t fit the ‘thin and blond’ assistant mold that my boss wanted. I’ve had to live every day here with that knowledge, and that my other 2 coworkers fit the ‘attractive female’ marketing model. I know my twists don’t help when it comes to advancement, and neither does my weight, and it is just maddening that these things have to matter so much.

  14. 14 On September 8th, 2009, Carol said:

    I am a 48 year old African American female. I have worn my hair relaxed (chemically straightened) for more years than I can remember. I have never really given much thought to why. My mother wears her hair relaxed. I just see it part of being a woman. All women care about the appearance of their hair. I have sincerely never thought about having good hair or bad hair. There must be something wrong with me. I wear my hair relaxed because it’s part of my beauty regimen.

  15. 15 On October 9th, 2009, Just Hair? Women, Politics, Passion and Fashion at Barnard College » said:

    [...] seem to be getting a lot of press these days, perhaps because Chris Rocks’ new documentary Good Hair opens on Oct. 9.  Diana Bell at Barnard College was kind of enough to let me know about this FREE [...]

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