When it comes to eating disorders, is critical to strategize specifically around our needs, ones grounded in our positionalities as people of color.
TW/CW: discussion of eating disorders
By Gloria Oladipo
November through January is one of the hardest times for any eating disorder survivors. Various holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve—center around socializing with food, scenarios that can add extra pressure for those struggling with disordered eating. However, the holidays are even harder for Black and brown survivors, demographics that receive almost no representation in the eating disorder field.
Despite the fact that Black and brown people are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder (ED), we are statistically diagnosed less often than our white peers. Black and brown people are not accounted for within the ED recovery field and treatments often approach our diagnoses as race-neutral. In media, EDs are usually shown to only impact thin white women, dismissing the impact of this disease on other races. Given how people of color have been ignored within eating disorder discourse, it’s hard to know how to approach and support family members of color with eating disorders.
Here are three ways to empower and provide support to survivors of color battling eating disorders:
Use weight and behavior neutral language when discussing eating concerns
Because of the limited and incorrect depictions of EDs, many people have a distorted understanding of what eating disorders “look like.” For one, most people only know a limited amount of eating disorders—anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders—compared to the wider array of diagnoses and how they can exist with co-morbid illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Secondly, of the EDs people do know, people falsely assume that there is as weight or definitive behavioral criteria, qualifications that can be biased against people of color. For example, when I began seeking out treatment for my restrictive eating disorder, my parents were under the belief that I needed to be at a certain weight to “qualify” as an anorexic. People create false assumptions about the behaviors of their loved ones, making comments that deny a person’s ability to have an eating disorder such as “But I see you eat all the time!” Understandably, it’s hard to imagine your loved one suffering from this disease. However, if that is their lived reality, it is much better to accept that chance than deny their experience with dismissive and hurtful comments.
Give Black and brown people the space to be vulnerable without being perfect
Oftentimes, when white women are engaging in problematic behaviors around food, there is an immediate sense of concern. The number of “special episode” films around eating disorders usually involves a white woman whose family slowly notices her destructive pattern around food, interceding gently at first before becoming more and more aggressive because they are worried about their daughter’s health. Black and brown people aren’t afforded this level of concern. Instead, our concerning behavior around food, weight, and body image are immediately criticized, not with any consideration of how we may be suffering, but because of the ways in which we could negatively influence other people. In our hypervisibility, we are constantly placed on pedestals that deny our ability to suffer. As I started treatment, practitioners would often nonconsensually place me in invisible “leadership” positions, allowing the white women in the same level of care as me to organically move through their programs while encouraging me to recover to continue being an “example” for others.
Providing us with the ability to be imperfect also includes not judging how we experience recovery. Unless otherwise stated, getting an eating disorder has nothing to do with anyone else. Relapsing during recovery isn’t a personal attack, but a well-known occurrence that happens when survivors are working on building new habits. Judging these episodes (“I thought you were serious about getting better”) or internalizing them as personal (“Why are you doing this to me?”) centers yourself within someone else’s healing and denies the space to be authentic out of a forced obligation to heal everyone around us.
Validate the overlapping parts of our eating disorder experience
Like any experience mapped onto Black and brown people of varying positionalities, there is nothing “neutral” about experiencing an eating disorder as a person of color. Our EDs, in part, can originate from the trauma of having to exist as apart of a marginalized group. Our eating disorders can be a reaction in response to multi-faceted racial violence. For me, my eating disorder was my way of trying to prove that I could be beautiful and Black. Given the various ways that eating disorders can exist for Black and brown people, our care has to be analyzed through the framework of intersectionality as well. In support of us, help us find therapists (of color) who can understand our lived experience and approach us with empathy. Help us meal plan with foods that honor our true taste preferences and cultural backgrounds. Validate the difficulty of trying to recover from an eating disorder, especially given how we may doubt the validity of our illness because of previous misconceptions.
Often times, the same inner critics that amplify our need to restrict, binge, or engage in other disordered behaviors will discredit our legitimate eating disorder diagnoses because we aren’t “sick enough.” This fear is commonplace among people newly diagnosed with eating disorders; however, for people of color, we may doubt that we are “white enough”, “thin enough”, “damaged enough”, or enough of whatever other eating disorder tropes. Supporters in our life need to support us through these insecurities and empower us in our recovery, even among doubts that we have a problem to begin with.
In general, there are plenty of ways to support people with eating disorders, especially during the difficult times of holidays. However, as many of these guides do not account for the specific complications people of color with eating disorders may experience, it is critical to strategize specifically around our needs, ones grounded in our positionalities as people of color.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman who is a sophomore at Cornell University and a permanent resident of Chicago, IL. She enjoys reading and writing on all things race, gender, mental health, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @glorels.