Stephanie Armstrong is the author of the new memoir Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat: A Story of Bulimia, in which the now 40-something, recovered, married mother of one daughter and two stepdaughters 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. The Brooklyn native also examines the “bootylicous” black woman stereotype and why the black community’s “code of silence” often leaves black women with eating disorders suffering in silence. The work is being hailed as the first book by and among black women about eating disorders.
A playwright and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles, Stephanie’s commentary on black women and eating disorders, “Digesting the Truth,” has been featured on NPR. Her work has appeared in Essence, Sassy, Mademoiselle, and Venice magazines, among other publications. She authored the screenplay for Contradictions of the Heart (20th Century Fox), starring Vanessa Williams, and her plays Three Stories Down, The Outside Sisters, and The Long Journey Home have been performed in theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Her essay on bulima, “Fear and Loathing,” is included in the forthcoming anthology The Black Body (Oct., 2009). She also sold a TV treatment, Kimchi and Cornbread, which led to a talk-show deal with MTV.
Now in a must-read interview, Stephanie takes the time to respond to questions from me and the-F-word readers.
How did your disorder develop, how long were you actively eating disordered, and how did you recover?
I was born the youngest of three girls when my mother was 20 years old. She was overwhelmed with the care and feeding of all three of us and didn’t have much time to address our emotional needs and often didn’t have the money for our food needs. I believe that because I was born with needs that my mother wasn’t able to meet it led to a hunger that would eventually turn into bulimia. When I was 12 years old, with the body of a young boy, I was raped by my uncle. Being fatherless, my uncle had a larger-than-life place in my life and I trusted him. I believed that his raping me was some kind of indication of my value or lack of value. It made me shut down and stop trusting people but it also made me shut off from my family, and as I grew older, men.
Eventually I started playing around with diets, laxative and diet teas, trying to control my food. I’ve never been overweight so it wasn’t about being skinny. I wanted one area of my life where I had control and no one could hurt me. I also had these inner beliefs that because of the rape that I wasn’t worthy or deserving of love. I ate to push down the feelings of low self esteem and shame. I really thought that not only did I invite the rape but there was something broken in me that made it impossible for my father to love me. Then I discovered bulimia. I didn’t want to get fat because then people would know that I wasn’t ok? They could see the tear in my armor if I were heavy. With bulimia I could hide my pain in plain sight and you’d never know how I felt about myself.
I think I was eating disordered my whole life, at least I thought about food more than the average person. Probably because we were poor and food wasn’t always accessible. I was a binge eater for years but I became a bulimic at around 21 years of age. I started my journey of recovery at 26 and it took about a year or two to stop the bulimic behavior. Once I stopped throwing up I still had episodes of bingeing so it was a while before I was entirely recovered.
I didn’t have a choice but to seek recovery. I went to a 12 step meeting for compulsive overeaters. I figured out that not only was bulimia a disease but it wasn’t normal to be hungry all the time. I also went into therapy. I was a struggling writer at the time so I found a place that had a sliding pay scale and paid twenty dollars a week. I also started talking to other women who had problems with food and it made me less isolated or ashamed. In my disease I was like a crack addict until the day I just got tired of being consumed with thoughts of food or dieting or thinking my life would start when I got to a certain point. Eventually, I was able to tell close friends and family members.
You are now in your 40s. What inspired you to write this book and why now?
I always wanted to write this book but I just wasn’t ready. About five years ago I relapsed back into the bulimia. After I recovered it was the first time in my life that I was free of shame. That’s when I decided that I wanted to tell my story so that other minority addicts would know that they were not alone. I felt that I was at a point where I could be honest and open and that I was writing my book for the write reasons. The process of writing down my past was also cathartic and it allowed my relationship with my family to also recover. My mother championed my writing the book. Just the fact that her love for me didn’t demand my silence made me love her even more. We’ve both grown so much from the period of the book and being a mother helped me to understand what it must have been like raising three girls by yourself from the age of twenty. By writing my story I came to understand that my family in a lot of ways is not that different from other families, there is a lot of shame in keeping secrets. I thought that if I could tell a secret that almost killed me than maybe other women would stop feeling so much shame about their secrets.
In what ways are eating disorders similar and different in black and white women and girls?
For me the biggest difference was that we don’t talk about eating disorders in the black community so you believe that they don’t exist. The reality is that we don’t talk about most things in the black community. There is a code of silence that is pervasive. There is also the stereotype that all black women like being heavy. That being bootylicious is a bonus as opposed to being thin. Also, lots of the food that is indigenous of black society (Soul Food) is rich and either fried or cooked until any nutritional value is depleted. Growing up in the hood it was harder to access healthy food and to understand their importance. I didn’t realize vegetables could be purchased fresh for many years. Rich, unhealthy food is more easily accessed in the inner cities. Those are just some of the differences that I have experienced.
Why don’t more black women seek traditional therapy for emotional problems?
I think the mistrust that many blacks have for white people in America, a holdover from Slavery, makes it difficult to expose ourselves to this same group of people. Most therapists are white, which also leads many of us to believe that even if we venture into therapy, we won’t be understood. These are some of the reasons that we don’t approve of traditional therapy. Obviously, this is not true for all black people but for the vast majority of black women there is the expectation we need to live up to the strong black female archetype which means suffering in silence. There is a lot of shame at not being able to be strong. Many women I have dealt with over the years chose to use the church to help them deal with their food issues, which only covers the spiritual aspect. Eating disorders are emotional, physical and spiritual diseases and need treatment and support for all three components in order to heal.
How does the stereotype of eating disorders as a white girl’s disease hurt disordered women of color, adult women and others who don’t fit the stereotype?
That belief keeps women of color isolated and feeling more alone and misunderstood. The picture of the classic eating disorder patient is a young white middle class girl. A recent study by USC, the first of its kind, documented young black girls with eating disorders. It found that black girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are 50 percent more likely that white women to develop bulimia. It makes us feel that we are not able to fit in within the eating disorder community. Eating disorders are about the need for control. What race or sex is immune to the need to cover up their shame, pain or anger with food, drugs, sex or alcohol?
The reason for the stereotype is the misconception that all black girls like to be heavy, which is corroborated by the rising figures of obesity in the black community. But even that is often the result of B.E.D. (Binge eating disorder). It takes a lot of bravery to come forward and admit that you have an eating disorder. Even when I did admit my problem, there was such a lack of understanding about eating disorders that people simply didn’t understand. They were not aware that laxative abuse, dieters teas, diuretic abuse and over-exercising are all forms of bulimia. Knowledge is power and once my community educates themselves on eating disorders I believe more people will be willing to come forward. We need to remove the stigma and shame first.
theKP asks: The title of your book clearly positions it as both an autobiography and an important corrective to the misconception that eating disorders are exclusively a problem for white women. I’m curious to know how you feel your narrative compares to existing eating disorder memoirs–what are the points of intersection, and what are the differences?
I’ve read a lot of eating disorder memoirs in the last fifteen years and, frankly, I am simply adding another flavor to the eating disorder palate. All people with eating disorders have a similar theme based on the addiction. I think my book is colorful because I’ve been able to write from the vantage point of lots of time and space from my addiction. I’m also no longer in my twenties or thirties, where there is more pressure to define yourself. I seriously can’t imagine spending time caring what you think of me, which I would have been wondering if I had written this book when I was younger.
I think all eating disorder books are unique because no two people are alike. Anyone who has suffered with an addiction and gotten to the other side has a story. I just needed to add a face to the collage of eating disorder images. Like my title suggests, it’s not just white girls who suffer.
theKP asks: What do you see as the role of the ED memoir? Is it outreach? Is it education for the non-eating disordered? Or is it predominantly literary (like creative non-fiction)?
I think it’s a bit of all those components. Whenever you can break through the stereotype with honesty it helps to educate people about the truth. I wrote my book because I remember feeling alone and isolated in the eating disorder community. Every time a group of black women came into program they didn’t stay and over the years I’ve met hundreds of women just like me. I wanted to write this book for them, for the women of color who felt alone so I believe that was a major part of my intention. As a writer I am also a voracious reader and I didn’t want to write a dry book that would bore you. I wanted you to see the different colors and stage of my life and to become so immersed in the quality of the writing that you would almost forget that you were reading a memoir about an eating disorder but instead a book about a young woman that you might want to be friends with.
I believe that, whenever you give up the lies and tell the truth with no self interest, you are going to help someone else. I think I tried to do all three and hopefully I accomplished that. My dream is to succeed at writing a book that proves timeless.
CrimsonWife asks: How, as a mom, are you going about trying to instill a healthy attitude towards eating and body image in your child? This is something I really struggle with in my recovery and there really aren’t a lot of resources out there I’ve found geared towards moms who have struggled with an ED.
I think more than anything else this is why I wrote the book. I needed to be fully healed so that I could pass that on to my child. I’m also a step-mom to two girls so I have three girls all under the age of ten. My eating disorder was about trying to control my feelings and not being comfortable with my feelings coupled with the trauma of sexual abuse. As a parent, I try to make sure that my girls are able to express their feelings and to be able to sit through their disappointment and discomfort. One of the things I also acknowledge is that childhood is difficult. I don’t assume that children’s feelings aren’t valid and separate from our own. By recognizing that the day-to-day aspects of fitting into fourth-grade, wanting to be accepted and popular on top of being a good student, I give my girls a voice to share what is really going on with them.
When it comes to food, I try to teach my girls how to eat healthy and that dessert comes after dinner. We also don’t diet in my house. There is no fat-free, low calorie food anywhere. I teach my girls that taste matters. I’m a foodie so I cook and bake and they enjoy helping me or my husband in the kitchen. We also don’t talk about weight. My daughter is also active in sports and sees me, her father and step-father exercising regularly. I try to impart in them that it’s so much more important how your brain works and to be a good person which is working right now. I have three beautiful normal girls and I want to keep it that way. Because I have a normal relationship to food it helps my girls to have a normal relationship to food. They often see me eat a cookie as a snack or pancakes for breakfast. There is no good food or bad food. Children are smarter than we give them credit for and they mirror our behavior so it’s important that they see us at our best. If your child sees you having a healthy body image then it will contribute to them having a healthy body image.
theKP asks: What are you writing next? Any new projects in the works?
I am working on three new books: one about motherhood; one is a self-help book that I am co-writing with a European woman who battled Anorexia and has been recovered for 18 years; and the other is about healing our relationship with food in the black community, along with an African –American therapist who is an eating disorder specialist and once battled an ED herself.
gina asks: How do you best reconcile healthy eating habits in the face of such impossible pressure to be not only beautiful, but visible and merely acceptable as a black woman in society (and specifically an integrated workplace)?
You don’t have to torture yourself to look good for others; it’s more important to feel good about yourself for you. Eating healthy and exercising is a normal part of my life. I do not believe in diets because I am a food addict and as soon as I restrict I risk going on the treadmill and lowering my self-esteem. I eat whatever I want just not all at once or all the time. For me it’s about developing a healthy relationship with food and also developing ways to raise your self esteem. Instead of concentrating so much on your outsides, do the things that make you feel good inside. It’s about being healthy at any size. If you find that you are not healthy then that is the bigger issue.
As women we are constantly pressured to live up to the media’s standards of beauty which is often based on lies and airbrushing. If you are eating right and exercising then chances are you are where you body needs to be in order to be healthy. I know that when I worked in an office there were so many events that took place around food. Imagine feeling overwhelmed, insecure and tired and then you have to go to lunch with a group of co-workers? It’s a recipe for disaster. You are not emotionally or mentally prepared for the experience. If you are turning to food to deal with the stress in your life it is necessary to get in touch with what is causing you to eat.
The most important thing to do is to get into relationship with your feelings. Journal about your feelings, go for walks, take deep breaths so that you are able to keep connected with your emotional self. So often we are busy and we don’t stop to check in with ourselves and it’s not until we fall into the food that we realize that we’re not ok. Maybe you would rather go for a walk and grab a healthy lunch instead of the pressure of eating with a large group. Or you can find a lunch buddy who is also working on getting healthy. I think it’s necessary to be healthy at any size and that means maybe finding an acceptable food plan, three meals a day and two snacks until you are able to develop a comfortable way of eating. The truth is no one likes being that different from others around them but its important not to add extra pressure onto yourself. The more you can learn to love yourself at any size the easier it will be to adopt a healthy life plan. It’s important to be our best selves and not compare ourselves to the person sitting next to us whether it is positive or negative. African-Americans have different standards of beauty and acceptance about weight, but as we climb up the socio-economic ladder, it becomes more in line with Caucasian standards. There is always going to be pressure to be whatever the media deems as acceptable. Getting healthy is an inside job. It is another job just to learn how to take care of yourself. Also remember that no one thinks about you as much as you think they are thinking about you.
For more information, see Armstrong’s website.