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By the age of 12, I was counting calories. I would only eat yogurt and fish, and plastered my walls with images from women’s magazines, perhaps using fashion to escape family difficulties. I adored some black models, but most of the women I compared myself to at that tender age were white and terribly thin. I did not realize then that I was teetering on the verge of developing eating habits that might have ruined my life. Luckily, when I got to high school this obsession died away. Many young black women are not so lucky.

Kaelyn Carson was a beautiful, high-achieving black woman who died of anorexia at the age of 20 in 2001. When she passed away she was 5’ 8” and weighed only 79 pounds. Her tragedy might seem like an extreme case, but the reality is that African-American women are increasingly affected by eating disorders at an alarming rate. The medical establishment and our own community are just painfully slow to catch on.

Many blacks still think of eating disorders as “a rich white woman’s problem,” but this is a misconception. Essence magazine conducted a survey in 1994 to bring awareness to the issue and found that among its respondents, a startling 53.5 percent were at risk for developing an eating disorder. The study also revealed that 15 percent of black women suffer from some kind of eating issue, mirroring the statistic of white women with eating disorders exactly.

What may differ between black and white women are the ways in which eating disorders are expressed, but not their prevalence. In the study, “Recurrent Binge Eating in Black American Women,” researcher Ruth H. Striegel-Moore and her associates discovered that binge eating actually occurs more often for African-American females than whites. In addition, she uncovered the fact that binge eating followed with the abuse of laxatives or fasting is more likely to be engaged in by our group.

It is time for the black community and health care professionals to acknowledge these facts, because the lack of awareness of black women with eating disorders poses a barrier to those needing help.

In a 2005 interview with Ebony Magazine, eating disorder specialist Dr. Gayle Brooks stated that African-American women suffering from eating disorders have to fight harder to get adequate treatment from those who often fail to diagnose their illnesses properly. Other studies have found that African-Americans are not only less likely to be correctly diagnosed with an eating disorder; they are also the least likely to be included in studies on these diseases.

This invisibility of African-American females cannot help but interfere severely with our diagnosis and treatment. It is important to receive the proper diagnosis, so that one can start on the road to recovery, which includes receiving treatment for the underlying emotional issues behind the disorder, and getting support towards rebuilding healthy eating habits. These steps are almost impossible to enact without the acknowledgment and expertise of doctors and other professionals. This might have been what happened to Kaelyn Carson. More awareness of eating disorders among black women might have saved her life.

Medical experts may not be aware of this reality, but that is no reason for our community to remain blind. We are used to assuming that all black women feel none of the pressure that white women do to look unhealthily thin, but that is no longer the case. In her Ebony interview, Dr. Brooks related: “We’re noticing a trend of more severe eating disorders among African-American young girls. And this trend is going to continue as the whole African-American culture becomes immersed in White European cultural values. Today it’s extremely difficult for an African-American girl to be insulated within the Black community so that she is not affected by the values of the dominant society.” In addition, as more black women seek to compete in the “white” corporate world, the pressure to be stick thin to fit in has grown.

With our greater mainstream integration has come this terrible side-effect. Eating disorders are no longer a “white woman’s disease.” If we are willing to face this cultural shift, we can intervene when eating disorders threaten our loved ones. We can support those who need treatment, so that they do not feel that they are acting outside our cultural norm by seeking help. Plus, we can and should band together to demand that doctors and therapists acknowledge our issues and provide fair treatment.

But all of this can only happen if we open our eyes to the fact that black women with eating disorders are real, and are part of a growing group.

Have you or a loved one suffered from an eating disorder? Did you find your family and doctors helpful or unable to properly help?

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Resources
Book: ‘Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat’
Stephanie Covington Armstrong does not fit the stereotype of a woman with an eating disorder. She grew up poor and hungry in the inner city. Foster care, sexual abuse, and overwhelming insecurity defined her early years. But the biggest difference is her race: Stephanie is black.

Study: A True Picture of Eating Disorders Among African-American Women
A review of published studies reveals a serious deficit in scope of eating disorders among African American women.
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Organizations
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders is the oldest non-profit in the country dedicated to alleviating and preventing eating disorders.

National Eating Disorders Screening Program
The National Eating Disorders Screening Program (NEDSP) focuses on the three main types of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. The goal of the program is to both raise the level of awareness about eating disorders and to encourage people who may be suffering from eating disorders to seek further help and treatment.

Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness
The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness is a non-profit organization working to prevent eating disorders and promote a positive body image, free from weight preoccupation and size prejudice.

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  • Damali

    almost 20 yrs ago I went thru this with someone very close to me who had gone away to college – her roomates called to alert me. To say I was naive about it is an understatement – I thought it was just a “Ladies Home Journal” type of issue and would never affect me or mine. I really didn’t know where to turn and and I watched, worried, nagged, cried and prayed but she kept denying that anything was wrong and would not even discuss it with me or anyone. Finally, about 10 yrs ago she was hospitalized for the side effects of purging and that seemed to be the wake-up call. Although she appears to be “cured” her husband & I still keep a close watch for the warning signs and I believe she will struggle with body image and food issues for the rest of her life.

  • I will have to read this article later on when I get a chance since I’m in a hurry to go to class but I just want to THANK YOU so very much for drawing attention to this topic. I am a young black female currently recovering from an eating disorder and often times I feel so alone in this because it’s hard to come across other black women willing to open up about these issues or who are even aware of them. I know a lot of my friends were shocked when they found out about me because they all that this was a white woman’s disease but it’s not and it’s really not just about food or fat. It’s so much deeper than that.

    Any young women suffering from ED’s please visit my site and feel free to contact me. I currently mentor someone who is trying to recover and I would love to reach out to more women and girls so they don’t have to go through what I did.

    • Hidi

      I wish you the best in your recovery, and I happy you pointed out that eating disorders are not “white woman” diseases. Personally, I believe diseases and conditions have no faces and anyone can be affect by it.

      “…it’s really not just about food or fat. It’s so much deeper than that.”- I cosign 100%.
      There are so many factors involved in the development of eating disorders.

      Also, binge eating (over eating, compulsive eating) is an eating disorder too. Some only think about the starvation or vomitting part but forget about “over eating” aspect.

      A big thank you to Clutch and their authors for their “black women health series”.

    • Thank you Hidi! =)

  • bianca

    Wonderful article. So many Black women suffer from eating disorders, although it’s overlook. Whether it’s binging and purging, anorexia….it’s sad, unfortunate.

  • i have an eating disorder and i can’t stop eating!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I’am 10 years old and I weight 180 lbs. what should I do?

    • Hello Raymara,

      You should definitely talk to your parents and let them know about how you are feeling and your issue first and foremost. Secondly, please make sure you visit/contact the resources and organizations listed in the article for additional advice and information. We wish you the very best.

      Clutch

    • Ro

      Have your parent take you to FA. http://www.foodaddicts.org

    • Hidi

      Raymara,

      Please, please take Clutch and Ro advice to talk to your parents or anyone who is really close to you and seek out the organizations listed on this site as well as the link for food addicts.

      I hope you get the help you need and may God be with you. :)

  • Ro

    FA is an amazing FREE program for anyone struggling with food issues, whether it’s anorexia, bulimia, or obesity.
    Changed my life. Lost weight and the obsession with food.