Written by: Tazrean Hossain
Graphics by: Cindy Hernandez
CONTENT WARNING: eating disorders, body image
I have been diagnosed with obesity since I was five years old. Growing up, I exposed myself to dangerous media about what losing weight and healthiness looked like. As a result, I developed disordered eating. Disordered eating describes an irregularity in one’s eating patterns. It can be seen as a step away from eating disorders, which the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines as “serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.” Eating disorders and disordered eating comes from a variety of biological, psychological, and social risk factors. The most common risk factor we hear about is the harmful, unattainable image of women’s bodies that is promoted by the media.
For me, I was impacted not only by the skinniness of the women I grew up seeing but also by their whiteness. I consumed shows about white girls developing eating disorders and coveted their whiteness and their ability to do something about their weight. I did not believe that the steps I was taking to lose weight were concerning because I was taught that having an eating disorder was only an issue white women could face. This type of representation in the media is damaging to women of color who also suffer from eating disorders, at even higher rates than young white women. According to NEDA, black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior. A 2011 study showed that Hispanics were much more likely to suffer from bulimia than their non-Hispanic peers.1 Though the numbers make it clear that this is a problem, some researchers don’t agree.
Researchers believe that there aren’t more people of color than white people experiencing eating disorders; rather, more people of color are simply reporting their experiences than they had done so before. This belief stems from the frequent presumption that people of color would be less likely to have eating disorders because some non-white cultures are more accepting of larger body sizes. A study about the preferred body type of female college students showed that black women preferred larger body types than Latinx and white women, concluding that “black women may be relatively protected from eating disorder symptoms as compared to Latinas and white women at the current time.”2
However, the conclusion of this study cannot be applied to the experiences of all people of color. We interviewed Amy, an Asian teenager, about her experiences with eating disorders. She describes the pressure she felt to be skinny as a result of what the media promoted about Asian women. “… I began to realize more and more how every famous Asian girl was really slim (especially the K-pop idols). They all weigh what I had weighed in middle school, and most of them are taller than me.”
Growing up under the influence of Bollywood movies, I received similar messages about what my body and appearance should be. The Bollywood actresses I idolized were skinny and light-skinned, and I believed this was what I needed to look like too. Multiple non-Western countries promoted skinnier body types through their media. Even if they didn’t, this doesn’t necessarily mean women of color aren’t more prone to eating disorders. There are multiple risk factors they face that contribute to this issue too, such as acculturation and historical trauma.
Acculturation is the process of adapting to a new cultural environment. For people of color, it means adjusting to Western influence that one may not have experienced before or may struggle to balance with their own identity.
Amidst K-pop idols and Bollywood actresses, Western influences have sneaked into the media of non-Western cultures and further harmed how women of color perceive themselves. It becomes difficult to avoid reacting to notions of whiteness in a non-Western society, as globalization and colonization have furthered the oppression of people of color and uplifted white beauty standards.
There is also a link between eating disorders and the historical trauma that many people of color have due to experiencing generations of systemic racism. Such historical trauma already has many other health consequences like anxiety and depression, which are risk factors of their own. Changes in one’s eating patterns can then be a response to the stress and anxiety one experiences.
Families perpetuate the issue further; they often find themselves more focused on survival and success in a racist, patriarchal society and disregard a child’s mental health issues.3 Amy describes her family’s reaction when she tried to talk about her body image. “…my mom (who grew up in China), she began talking about how it’s not healthy for girls to be skinny, and how I should eat more because I study a lot. She said that if I lost weight I would become a ghost.” The shame and judgment a woman of color may experience from her family keeps her from talking to her loved ones and getting the support she needs. If she does try to get professional help, there are more barriers. Clinicians are less likely to diagnose a woman of color with disordered eating in comparison to a white woman.4 A focus on whiteness has led to significantly less research on women of color with eating disorders, making it even harder to diagnose and to treat. Even if she is able to be diagnosed, there are also financial difficulties a woman of color may face regarding healthcare and treatment options.
It is incredibly important that we continue to raise awareness about this issue. From the moment she is taught her body should look different to her development of an eating disorder, girls of color are not getting the support they need during each step of this difficult process. We have to start by teaching professionals to recognize there is a problem. Experts must be implored to include women of color in their research about eating disorders. Then, we have to change the culture of how families of color deal with these issues. Women of color need to feel like they can speak up about their experiences and get the help they deserve. Ultimately, we must recognize that there is no singular image of what an eating disorder looks like; our treatment and our outreach must continue to grow in inclusivity.
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