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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Hi, thank you so so much for tis forum and this safe place to ba able to be true. Because in the community (this is only my point of view), using on food is seen as normal. A normal person will indulge on food but not on a daily basis, not in putting her health at threat, not on being overweighted.
Eating disorder are the same for any community. It is a disease, so to say that black women can’t be bulimic is pure bullsh*t.
I have been overweithed and bulimic using on the worse for 12 years.
We’ve already talked about this on Twitter. I don’t have bulimia, but I am anorexic & have been since high school. My ED is under control now because I’ve learned to avoid triggers, but the myth that black girls don’t have ED’s almost killed me before I figured out that working out for 3 hours & not eating wasn’t about weight loss, but was about me needing help.
I african american and I use to struggle with anorexia, I struggle with it for about 5 years.
I am 31 years old and have been an emotional water all of my adult life and suffered from binging & purging for the last 7 due to sexual abuse and severely low self-esteem. I finally started going to OA mtgs but I am one of the few black women that attend regularly. If it wasn’t for OA and sites like yours,I would eat myself to death – literally.
Same here. 30 years old, black and bulimic. Just finished 6 months of intensive treatment. The hardest thing was having my family second guess my decision to seek treatment. They knew I was sick, just not “that kind” of sick. Suggested I pray harder, while ED was killing me. That’s why our community needs to be open. That’s why I posted, to help to remove the shame of admitting that you need and seeking help. Thanks for bringing attention to this through this forum.
“Suggested I pray harder, while ED was killing me.”
“Suggested I pray harder, while ED was killing me.”
You know it kills me when you inform family/friends/fill-in-the-blank about a serious issue in your life, one that may require real help, and all they suggest is prayer.
Doesn’t the Bible say Faith without works is dead?
(James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.)
It bothers me something serious when we choose to ONLY rely on prayer as if we could never benefit from any outside assistance. *le sigh*
It was almost as if they were telling you, “Oh I hear you say you need help but I’ll talk you out of getting any professionally and just watch you die.”
I tell my daughter all the time that if someone tells you they need help, BELIEVE THEM.
I struggled with bulimia and abused diet pills from the time I was about 13 years old to I think 18. At that time I weighed around 180 lbs but I quit myself. I realized that what I was doing wasn’t helping me in any way. There were times where I would go a week without food and then gorge myself and feel so incredibly guilty that I’d purge. I’m no longer like that, thankfully.
I now weigh 145lbs and I got there the healthy way with exercise and eating balanced. I still have a love hate relationship with food but I eat. And more importantly, I eat properly.
Reading this title….that’s a lie I have heard often. I knew/know too many Black girls who have the disease and are in recovery. Recovery from an ED is a lifelong struggle. I was always on the brink from age 13/14. I was/am a binge eater. It’s something that I have carried with me, privately. I’ve never been diagnosed but I know the signs. At that age my seemingly perfect life fell apart. My parents were divorcing and my dad moved to another state. It’s gotten better as I’ve aged but it’s still a struggle.
You don’t even have to be overweight to be one of those Black girls/women with an anorexic spectrum ED who’s ignored because of “STOP LOOKING HERE”.
AMOF, people might even say things like “You’ve lost weight! You look great!”
Also, ask any Black woman who dances / teaches Pilates / does bodywork for a living … if they haven’t been that woman, they’ve seen that woman.
There really is immense pressure on fitness “experts” to be thin… like, obscenely thin. I’ve been in that position. Hell, I AM IN that position. :/
Wow so many of us(black women) are bulimic or recovering bulimics. I was one for a large portion of my teens it’s not fun but you’re numb to it because all I was focused on was not wanting to get fat, I didn’t care about what way was healthier or not, pffssst!! I needed a quick fix and that was my solution unfortunately. I never sought treatment for it, I didn’t think I needed to, I battled it and didn’t let it completely control me, I’m grown now and I still have my tempting episodes where I wanna just find a toothbrush and go to town. I’m trying to just focus on being healthy and taking care of my body internally.
It’s not just a “white girl problem.” I’ve suffered from bulimia on and off since the age of 11. I learned at an early age how to abuse diuretics, laxatives, diet pills, and medicines to induce vomiting. I’ve been overweight my whole life, dealing with severe bullying in school because of my weight. I turned to bulimia and extreme fasting to deal with my issues. I’m now 31 and still I have an unhealthy relationship with food. I’m also currently at my heaviest I’ve ever been (338 lbs.) I purge occasionally and binge often. At this juncture in my life, it’s the only thing that makes me feel better. I hate that people make it out to seem that Black women don’t suffer from this, although at times, I feel like I’m the only one.
I do agree with this article. We need to stop shutting our eyes to health/mental issues in the black community. If you don’t ever learn how to handle your problems, issues or whatever you want to call it, then how can we raise the next generation, our children, to deal with things.
I was molested at a very young age (6 to 10 years old) and I never dealt with the pain. My father handled the problem so it couldn’t continue but I never talked to my mother or father or anyone else about what happened. I never discussed the why and how and of course in my mind it was, and still is sometimes, my fault. Sadly, my daughter was also molested at a young age and I blame myself again. I didn’t see it because I was still dealing with my own problems so I couldn’t help her avoid it and I am still not in a position to help her like I a mother should be able to.
The point is in order to raise children who are healthy in every way, physically, mentally, emotionally, we have to be healthy ourselves. In order to do that we need to deal with whatever problems or issues prevent us from being whole and healthy.
Thank you. I am so glad somebody has addressed this. I’m only 15 and suffer from anorexia. I weigh 79lbs and I’m 5″7. Although I can see my hip bones, all of my ribs, and my collar bones sticking out by over an inch, my GP refuses to diagnose me with anorexia, he said “people of your ethnic back-round don’t become anorexic” and he then decided to test me for diabetes, saying that could be the cause of my weight loss. But I KNOW why I’m losing weight, Ive been restricting for around 2 years now 0-500 a day and I exercise non-stop, my bones stick out, yet I still see fat everywhere and i’m obsessed, its ruining my life. I fit PERFECTLY in the category of Anorexia Nervosa but because of the color of my skin, nobody seems to agknowledge it, my BMI is a meek 12.4 and droppiing, I know I have a problem and I do want to recover but when i reach out for help, no one answers, and im afraid Im going to die, but its an obsession, but my GP seems to think Im fine, never even weighed me! and when I tell him I only weigh 79lbs he says I must be reading the scales wrong, its insulting, but when I ask to be weighed he says there’s no need because I look ahealthy weight, which I do NOT, should i just lift my shirt up so he can see my hips and ribs, because no bdy is listening to me, they think I just want attention
Wow that is so sad, please don’t stop reaching out there must be someone around you who cares. You are in my prayers that you will find some kind of help to become healthy.
I am glad that someone is being open about this. I always had major issues with my self image. I went on my fist crash diet when I was 10. I being eat a lot, I tried purging only a few times with the help of stimulants, such as ipecac and laxatives in the passes. In my early years of college I stop eating meals, and when I did eat is was a plan salad and a bottled water. I lost almost 50 pounds my first semester at college, but everyone actually praised me for my weight lose instead of being concerned. I am a few days short of my 26th birthday and I am developing a bulimic pattern and I have been starving myself. Today is the first day that I did not make myself purge, but I tried really hard not to eat, but as time passed I started bingeing. I have never shared this with anyone, not a friend or family member. This society only thinks that Black women suffer from obesity and bad diet choices,but this helps to shine a light on the ugly truth. We are just as human as anyone else in this world and we have emotions, which can be hurt, too.
I am a black woman, and I have suffered with disordered eating since the ripe old age of 12 when I went on my first crash diet, complete with laxative tea. I was anorexic for 3 years after that. I went from a very healthy looking adolescent to a stick with bones sticking everywhere and by eating 500 calories a day and over exercising. I only got compliments from my friends and family. I did ultimately stop, but only after I was able to satisfy my insecurity and need for control by branching into another outlet – sexual misconduct. No one around me knew of any of these things, even though I consider myself to be close to my family.
In college, I fell back into disordered eating. This time I was binging and starving. I would eat a ridiculous amount of food in secret and then eat practically nothing for 2 days. I tried purging several times over the years, but i was physically incapable. No matter what I tried, the food wouldn’t come back out.
This cycle repeated itself for several years. The disturbing thing was that I didn’t see an issue with my behavior. I was one of few ppl in my extended family to escape obesity so I thought I was just disciplined.
I have finally managed to address my obsession with food, strangely enough by going on a diet. I started eating healthier food in hopes of correcting my poor metabolism, eating only natural unprocessed foods with higher calories and more healthy fats. Surprisingly,my desire to binge waned and waned. When I figured out I was intorerant to dairy and gluten and cut those out, I was finally able to put my food obsession behind me. I was also able to recognize the insecurity and lack of confidence that caused me to obsess about and abuse my body in the first place, and I’ve gone a long way toward working on those. It took me 16 years to reach where I am now, and I think greater awareness in the community would have allowed me to get help when I needed it most. Thanks for your article.
Wow! Thank you for this. I can honestly say I always thought I was alone in my fight with an eating disorder and being a black woman. I have suffered from it since I was in high school. It was right after a difficult situation at home. I’ve been suffering from it on and off but I am in therapy for it.
I’ve had to get rid of certain triggers and certain people that can trigger it. A lot of friends don’t seem to understand that my journey in living a healthy lifestyle right now is not so much about weight loss but just to be healthy and have a healthy relationship with food. I don’t want to beat myself up for eating anymore. At the same time they don’t know my struggle because when I do open up about the disorder I get weird looks or told it doesnt happen to black women or “whats wrong with you.”
Thanks to therapy I am on a road to recovery but in order to get this point I had to be honest with myself that I needed help and I needed to tell someone about my secret disorder.
In the past, I suffered from bulimia through high school and my early twenties. I also was a frequent dieter. It took my first year of graduate school to address the eating disorder. After a year of intensive therapy for my trauma, all the episodes of bulimia stopped. The important thing is that I got help for myself and is now on a journey to a healthy lifestyle since I was 25. Nowadays even though I do not suffer from the eating disorder anymore , I still want to go to a class that helps work on body image issues. It has been a long journey.
Thank you, beautiful, for this post. The amount of ignorance that people have is astonishing to me. I was writing a paper on this and more often than not people just didn’t understand or believe me, and it made me sick. 🙁 This is beautifully written, thank you.
Be strong all you beautiful women! I wish all of you the best of luck, with a full, quick, and permanent recovery!
You are amazing. Thankyou.
This rings incredibly true. For a long time I did not understand my actions, the emotional eating and bingeing and restricting, because I have always been overweight and thought my problem was a lack of self-control. But then I hit a point where I worked out, lost weight and found binge eating came with a vengeance. And because I’m Dominican and not visually “thin” I thought “my experiences with this do not matter.” Eating Disorders are not just a thin White Female’s problem. Females of color, White males, males of color, thin Females, overweight males– it can become anyone’s problem. The sooner we acknowledge this, the more people will stop suffering alone and seek help, even if from a family member and/or friend.
I am a black anorexic/bulimic who went from 265 lbs to 99 lbs in ONE YEAR. I almost lost my life and my liver. Why? Because no one, not doctors, not my family, wanted to believe it when I reached 200, 180, 150, 135,etc. It went on for so long and because of it my body is in so much turmoil. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m even alive right now, because losing so much in such a short amount of time should kill you.
The world needs to know that this problem can, will, and DOES affect the black community.
Someone very close to me suffers from AN, and I thought that she was the only beautiful Black Girl out there with this horrible struggle. Can anyone direct me to a website or a group that supports People of Color who are suffering with AN, or Bulimia? God Bless each of the commenters above. If you are going to a doctor who is discounting what is right in front of their faces, then you need to walk – no – RUN out of his/her office, and go find a doctor that will listen, honor and support you gaining weight and getting mentally and physically healthy!
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