This month is Black History Month and this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and Stephanie Armstrong addresses both in an interview on “Saturday Mornings with Joy Keys,” an interactive, live Internet talk-radio show that focuses on “providing people with tools to enrich and advance their lives mentally, physically, monetarily and emotionally.” Stephanie 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. You may remember that Stephanie also answered the-F-word’s questions a few months ago.
Guests included Stephanie and Laurie Vanderboom, program director for the National Eating Disorders Association, which sponsors and coordinates National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. A few interview highlights
Joy: What do you (NEDA) see when you have these programs? Do you see a lot of African American women coming to the programs?
Laurie: We’re just beginning to and we’re just beginning to reach out. There’s so much shame involved in an eating disorder that people hesitate to step up. Stephanie, wouldn’t you agree that no matter what your racial make-up…
Stephanie: Absolutely, but especially coming from a culture that doesn’t support therapy, that doesn’t support getting outside help, and risking falling outside of the strong black woman archetype that we’re raised believing and have to become. It’s hard to disassociate yourself with that image to get the help you need.
Stephanie: One of the things I always talk about, especially in the black community, is that we don’t have an awareness of what exactly bulimia is. It’s like you go to someone’s house and they’re drinking that dieter’s tea. That’s bulimia. Laxative abuse is bulimia. Diuretic abuse is bulimia. Compulsive exercising is bulimia. It’s like we think it’s just throwing up, but it’s not just throwing up.
Joy: I was talking with a professor of mine and he mentioned that psychologists don’t diagnose African American women properly with eating disorders, because they’re not used to seeing a African American woman coming to their office with this issue. Stephanie, do you feel that that’s the case?
Stephanie: Absolutely. Absolutely. I am constantly talking to women — some who are therapists, some who are young — who are constantly misdiagnosed. I’ve had doctors say, ‘Oh, you don’t have an eating disorder. African Americans don’t have eating disorders.’ I had a young woman call me yesterday – she goes to Clark Atlanta College and she’s at the American University in DC working on an exchange and she’s doing a paper in journalism and decided to do a paper on blacks and eating disorders because her aunt was bulimic and died from it. She calls me up and she said her teacher said, ‘Well, the problem is that there aren’t really that many black women with eating disorders, so that’s going to be a hard paper to do.’ It’s that overall belief that we don’t exist. (she briefly cites a rundown of research showing the prevalence of eating disorders among black women and girls, including this study) …the research is seeping in, but it’s still not getting the attention.
And it’s not just black women with eating disorders who are thought to be virtually non-existent. Running Tiptoe recently posted a review of a recent “Intervention” episode featuring an Hispanic woman with an exercise addiction and a history of bulimia. In her review, she offered this link to this 2006 study of “eating disturbances among Hispanic and native American youth,” in which it was found a much more significant pattern of disordered eating behaviors than previously thought. There are more stats and studies on Hispanic women and eating disorders listed in this 2003 news report.*
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, eating disorders continue to persist in public opinion as a disease young, white girls from middle-class and wealthy backgrounds develop. But eating disorders are the great equalizers: food is one of the few legal “drugs” out there; everyone needs it to survive; and in industrialized nations, at least, is widely available and relatively cheap. That, combined with the constant affirmations of weight loss as morally good and idolization of thinness saturating virtually every facet of our lives, and it’s no wonder that those with emotional issues and unfulfilled needs might turn to food and the body to express a pain they cannot put into words.
Black girls and women with eating disorders. Hispanic girls and women with eating disorders. Adult women with eating disorders. Boys and men with eating disorders. Orthodox Jewish girls and women with eating disorders. Poor girls and women with eating disorders. We. All. Exist.
* For more information on eating disorders amongst non-white populations, see here.
posted in Anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia, Class & Poverty, ED-NOS, Eating Disorders, Gender & Sexuality, Interviews, Mental Health, New Research, Purging Disorder, Race Issues, Rachel, Recovery | 5 Comments