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.