, Debunking The Myths“Black Women Are Too Fat To Have Eating Disorders!”

“Black Women Are Too Fat To Have Eating Disorders!”

Oftentimes, when I read an article about body image or wellness in general, I let it sit and I just… think. For days, months, whatever. If for no other reason than “I want to make sure that I consider all sides regarding this topic,” I just want to be able to think clearly about it.

That would, also, be the case when I read the following article from The Root, published earlier this year, on Black women with bulimia.

“The biggest misconception is that this is only about being thin,” says Armstrong, noting that most people with bulimia are either a normal weight or slightly overweight. “I don’t believe that’s the first reason. It comes from some kind of trauma and a need for control — you don’t just wake up one day and decide to throw up.”

In Armstrong’s case, the trigger was being raped by an uncle when she was 12. Having grown up in a fatherless Brooklyn, N.Y., household, she says that being assaulted by her single male role model left her feeling worthless. “I had no other men in my life who loved me to help me see, ‘This person is messed up.’ For me it became, ‘I’m messed up.’ ” Studies show that roughly 60 percent of people with bulimia have suffered sexual abuse.

Armstrong turned to bingeing and purging as a coping mechanism for her anxiety and low self-esteem after getting the idea from a magazine article intended as a cautionary tale for teens. Laxative abuse and excessive exercise soon followed. “At the height of it, I was throwing up eight to 10 times a day. Afterward, there would be this calm,” says Armstrong, now in her 40s. “I could not control the external circumstances of my life, but I could control my relationship to food.”

Meanwhile, her family and friends never connected the dots. Watching her inhale large quantities of food, they just marveled at her ability to stay skinny. “It was like they were envious, which only fueled a feeling of superiority,” she said. After living with her secret for seven years — so obsessed, depressed and suicidal that she could barely function — she finally sought help and checked into a 12-step program. “I was desperate around food, and at a certain point I just couldn’t live like that anymore.”

The article, to me, was a typical, run-of-the-mill portrait of Black women with eating disorders, but there was something different about this one. It wasn’t in the article. It was in the comments.

The article didn’t move me as much as the outcries of “Black women are too fat to be bulimic! This is not a Black girl problem! You made this up! You, dear author, have clearly lost credibility on this one!”

I call this type of foolishness “PR work,” because it’s not saying “Wow, I’ve never known anyone who was bulimic before.” It’s saying “THIS DOESN’T EXIST. STOP LOOKING HERE,” just like a public relations rep doing damage control. It’s the same way the Black community treats any number of issues within it – hell it’s the same way all communities treat its less-than-pretty issues.  It’s heartbreaking – what do you tell the victims? It’s easier to sweep their issues under the rug because no one knows what to do to help them?

“Doctors tend to not recognize it in African-American women, so they don’t make appropriate referrals for treatment,” Brooks says, adding that studies have shown that it takes longer for black girls to be diagnosed with eating disorders than it does white girls who have the same symptoms.

You know why? Because Black girls are out here still overweight and bulimic.. and nothing is more insulting than the idea that “Black women are too fat to be bulimic.” Why? Because it insinuates that a) bulimia is successful in producing thin women and b) the only way a person could clearly be visibly bulimic is if they were, in fact, skinny. This type of thinking is so end-oriented that it forgets that there’s a road that has to be traveled – a person whose bulimia takes them from 295 to 200 too quickly is still a bulimic even though they don’t weigh only 110lbs. And, dare I say it, but it might be even harder to “cure” the bulimic whose lost 95lbs as a bulimic than one whose lost 15lbs, because it has been reinforced for them that “this is a successful way to lose weight” in a much stronger fashion.

You know what else happens? Since they think they’re getting away with it – bingeing and not gaining weight – it gets worse. They never get called out on it, they never get help with how to cope, they never get help with whatever issue drove them to need such control. Never.

I’m also always amazed by the “I’ve never known a Black bulimic” line of thinking, too. Do you think they’re going to wear a t-shirt proclaiming their “bulimic pride?” Are there pro-bulimic alliances out there they’re supposed to chair? Considering how closed-minded some of us are to issues like this, and considering how closed-minded some of us are to therapy, don’t you think you can see why none of your potentially-bulimic friends have come out to you? Or, maybe they’re not ready to come out yet? Maybe they’re perfectly happy hiding in shame (or feel no shame at all, but merely righteous indignation) and wouldn’t be saved by anything other than an intervention… an intervention that might never come because you’re too busy proclaiming that Black bulimics don’t exist.

This desire to adamantly protect the idea that Black women can never have a problem or need help or struggle with something has to stop. It’s the same mentality that keeps our problems behind closed doors instead of front and center where they belong – everyone needs some kind of help and we all have the ability to help each other. A Black woman who suffers with bulimia has a personal

[issue] that is just as political as every other issue that we swear needs attention (like, say, whether or not marriage is only for white people, also known as “the dumbest question I’ve ever heard of in my life”), and pretending she doesn’t exist does nothing to help that collective that we swear we care so much about.

Is bulimia a “Black girl problem?” Bulimia is an all-person problem. It respects neither gender nor race, and we should all try with all our might to not marginalize those who suffer from it, or we’ll wind up with loved ones who may never get help. All I want from us is to stop saying these issues don’t exist among us. Stop talking so much, and start listening more. Start reading and looking for insight, and stop being so closed-minded. Black women are not a monolith – we are not bred to be emotionless workhorses that have no thoughts, feelings or problems. We are individuals, and our problems are unique. Give us the space to be who we are, and if we are “broken,” then let us exist as “broken” so that those who love us can help “fix” us. It’s all we can ask of you.

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By | 2017-06-10T11:22:07+00:00 November 26th, 2014|Body Image, Debunking The Myths|40 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.

40 Comments

  1. R November 1, 2011 at 11:15 AM - Reply

    thank you so much for posting this. i am black, almost 30 and 250lbs. ive been suffering from binge eating and anorexia since age 6 and the only person ive told is my boyfriend. i’m working on getting help, but the first hurdle came from my mom who had the same “black women don’t have this white people problems” point of view. she knew i was binge eating in elementary school (she found me hoarding snack foods around my bedroom) and said and did nothing about it. my eating disorder came from abuse that was ignored when i reported it. initially i started overeating to hide pain and as i got older and more developed i continued overeating as a way to make myself unattractive to men. that didn’t work.

    people don’t seem to understand that women and men of all enthnicities suffer from the same problems and you’re right we certainly don’t advertise. thank you again for sharing this and i hope it opens the eyes of more people.

    ps i knew a black GUY in high school who was also anorexic.

    • Dee July 31, 2012 at 4:36 PM - Reply

      Wow, reading your comment sounds just like my experience. I have been in therapy which helps my binge eating. I have experienced binging/purging and starvation and I was (and still am) a food hoarder. It is something that people think Black women don’t experience and it is real. I remember my first binge and I am now understanding the why (dealing with abuse), but it has been an albatrosse on my back for 30 years and I’m now trying to tackle it. My mom said the same thing “white people only do that.” And how I should have dealt with my abuse, “Leave it to God.” Yeah, so not helpful….

    • Joyce R. November 5, 2012 at 11:59 AM - Reply

      It’s time to come out of the closet on this issue. All types of girls can have this problem. It is true that we sweep issues under the rug. But most people eat and don’t throw up (on purpose). People only understand one thing; eating, digesting, and eliminating. It is easy to understand “misunderstanding”. For the most part, we don’t know any black girls or white girls with this problem. Some of us are still unaware of anorexia. We know something is up but can’t do anything about it. It’s not like it is a subject we talk about everyday. We should seek to get the word out and let others know that this disorder affects boys too. One person who commented on this spoke of knowing a male with this problem. Good job on this article.

  2. Tiffany November 1, 2011 at 6:51 PM - Reply

    Thank you so much for writing this! The ignorance or denial of some (most) people regarding this issue makes me want to cry. I read another blog of a therapist who works with women who suffer from eating disorders and I e-mailed her to ask if she had any information on the stats of black women with eating disorders. She sent me a study that found that black women were more likely to experience more bulimic episode than the white women in the study while weighing more. I am overweight and suffered from compulsive and binge eating. I’ve never been bulimic- but not for lack of trying. I know other women of varying races (black, white, asian etc) who suffer from eating disorders. I wish people would realize this is not a white girl, black girl, skinny girl, or fat girl problem. It’s a PEOPLE problem. I wish we as individuals and as a society would stop trying to sweep everything under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. What is not faced can never be healed. I hope we all learn this soon.

  3. T.R. November 1, 2011 at 7:56 PM - Reply

    Great article. I agree we really need to stop that “only white people have that problem” mentality. I believe strongly that’s why their is so much self destruction in our community because few of us have a place we can go to be vulnerable and have people listen. That’s why if nothing else I try and let people know it’s OK to be broken because I’ve been broken (still broken in some places) and I went to therapy etc. This mentality is one of the leading causes of some of our more persistent problems in the black community, in my opinion.

    And I can’t WAIT to here your position on “marriage is for white people”. I can’t even….never mind I’ll wait to hear what you have to say. :O)

  4. Kelekona November 3, 2011 at 2:05 PM - Reply

    Nurture argument: even in the most non-diverse communities, everyone in the country is inundated with similar stimuli and values once you leave the neighborhood. (Even outside the country. I remember something about how Asian women in Asia would get cosmetic surgery during WWII to remove the oval shape from their eyes.)

    Nature argument: any black family that started in America before Lincoln probably doesn’t know about European blood in their line. There’s probably also some gaps during the civil rights movement and maybe even some “contamination” in families that never left Africa.

    Baseless argument: the potential for any issue associated with the mind or mind/body connection probably appeared at the same time that we could consciously recognize complex problems and work our way through them.

    We’re all human.

  5. KalleyC November 14, 2011 at 4:55 PM - Reply

    This is a great article and I thank you for writing it. I also suffered from eating disorders when I was coming up, and I know that there were other girls like me who was going through the same thing. It’s not just a “white” girl issue, but it’s an all girl issue.

    The pressures that are on women are so strong, that they end up getting implanted in young girls minds too.

  6. Blessed December 10, 2011 at 5:39 AM - Reply

    I am 40 years of age and have suffered from Bulimia for over 15 years. I am just getting professional help. There was one year when I called up a hospital because even though I was going to work everyday… I ALSO knew that I was severely dehydrated and I should have been in the hospital. I called up an impatient center and the minute I told them that I was 295 pounds …they suggested out patient. I felt like I was in this dark abyss alone. I was able to hide behind my ethnicity because NO ONE would have known what I was going through for all those years. I remember watching as a young person the after-school specials and NEVER seeing images of myself. Last year I decided to come out and share with my choir that I am going to the eating disorder walkathon… I went there and I was one of two black women on the walk. You would think that black women do not have eating disorders. Neda… really needs to do something about having some people of color representing an underrepresented population. I have had a few years in between of “sobriety” but I am still working on my relationship with food. Thanks for this article. B.

  7. soullessandpained April 9, 2012 at 12:51 PM - Reply

    i was 3yrs old when mine began. it began as a throat infection where i lost a lot of weight and my mother gave me the rare attention that i needed and went from there. at 20yrs old i weighed 103lbs (5’5) I was passing out and almost lost my job. until i was 26yrs old i weighed 106-115lbs. when i was pregnant with my 1st sone i gained 10-15lbs he wieghed 6.5 lbs. When i had my twins i went up too 130lbs they were 4.4lbs & 6.6lbs. Within a month of having them i was down to 110lbs again. I was told i was black and couldnt have an ED altho i was eating a mere 500cals a day for yrs & was so thin i was always between -1& size4. Iooking back at my pics you you can see all my bones. i couldnt wear a watch because they kept falling off. I’m 30 this yr and i weigh 135 which is health but i still suffer and want to lost 3stone (42lbs) that would leave me at 93lbs. I have been a healthy weight for 2yrs but it has been a struggle without any help from professionals because i’m black so (insert all the lies and myths u can think of here ) lol

    • soullessandpained April 9, 2012 at 12:58 PM - Reply

      i forgot to mention that i was only mia(bulimic) at 20, 24 & 25 yrs old the rest of the time i was anorexic. i became paranoid during the times i was mia because i thought ppl could smell i had been sick, 3 of my teeth started rotting from the inside out. the stress was so much that i went back to being anorexic only

    • BrainyBabe April 20, 2012 at 2:29 AM - Reply

      While I don’t know you nor have I walked a day in your shoes, I just wanted you to know that your comments touched me. As a big woman who has always struggled to lose weight, I definitely do know the pain of having a relationship with food that is problematic say the least. I believe that we of the black community are becoming a little more healthy toward the idea of mental health and therapy, it is a continuing struggle. Media images that don’t include us and which we often don’t control don’t help either. Kudos to your being able to keep a healthy weight for the past two years and continuing best wishes.

  8. Violets Mommy April 24, 2012 at 2:32 PM - Reply

    My great grandmother was anorexic,she starved herself to death, and I’m 42 years old so that was over 50 years ago. My grandmother did speak about it and I really didn’t think about it until I would see stories about Bulimia and Anorexia.My mother is grossly overweight and my Grandmother was obsessed, I mean obsessed with weight and was on every fad diet known to man. We have to think about something as well, a lot of Black Women, I say that because we are talking about Black women, overeat, and I was always under the impression that was part of the food disorder spectrum? The shame about issues like this need to stop it can cost a woman that really needs help her life.

  9. Ke April 25, 2012 at 7:24 AM - Reply

    Most people do not have the resources for this treatment. I am currently recovering from bulimia. The only reason I was able to receive help was because my school has a eating disorder program. Most doctors do not take this issue seriously or provide resources for treatment. I am also convinced that they think that most black women enjoy being overweight.

  10. Greg Kuhn July 14, 2012 at 2:24 AM - Reply

    Hello Erika, thank you for this post. A lot of men suffer and stress from body image issues too. During my weight-loss journey (I am 45 years old and, since 1997, I have worn the same pants size I did as a 15 year old!) I had to confront my “old beliefs” about body image and how I should look. I studied quantum physics to develop new paradigms which shook up my weight loss forever (in a positive way) back in 1997 and found that I needed to change all the stories I had been taught to tell myself about food, eating, exercising, and my body’s size. Thank you, again, for contributing to our health with this wise post!

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