Eating Disorders: Not Just a White Thang

Despite popular belief, African-American women and girls do struggle from eating disorders.

Posted: 04/04/2011 10:45 AM EDT
Filed Under health care

Stephanie Covington Armstrong

More than 10 million Americans suffer from some kind of eating disorder, and many of them are not young, white females, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 4.2 percent of American women at some point in their lives will suffer from bulimia, which is characterized as binge eating and purging by vomiting, excessive exercise or laxative abuse. Anorexia nervosa, in which people starve themselves to extremely low weights, affects up to 3.7 percent of American women.

Yet, when we think about these disorders, we are very quick to assume that they are Gossip Girl problems—when in fact, they aren't. Despite the lack of trustworthy national statistics around women of color who suffer from eating disorders, many experts suspect that the numbers—especially around bulimia—are increasing among African-American women.  

So why do we still think this can't happen to us?

The lack of Black women seeking treatment for eating disorders plays a role. Many times health insurances won't pay the hefty price for eating-disorder treatment, or the stigma behind having a disorder is so high. Without being in a health care setting, women of color will get left out of the data.

And then there are societal myths. How many times have we been told that Black women don't suffer from low self-esteem or don't have any issues with their bodies? Essentially, Black women are told that they are superwomen—and eating disorders can't happen to them. All of which isn’t true—like all women and girls of different racial backgrounds, everyone is vulnerable.

In a recent interview with ABC News, Stephanie Covington Armstrong, pictured above, the author of the memoir Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, said, "There is that shame of not being a strong Black woman. People would ask me, 'What, do you want to be white or something?'"

Armstrong, who is now in her 40s, suffered from bulimia on and off since she was 13 years old. She states that at the peak of her disease, she was vomiting almost 15 times a day. While Armstrong's eating disorder was a coping mechanism for dealing with being molested by her uncle, there are many other theories as to why Black women suffer from eating disorders.

Some believe that middle-class Black women are influenced by white standards of beauty and therefore are prone to developing eating disorders. Yet, a 2009 study conducted found that not only were African-American girls 50 percent more likely than white girls to be bulimic, but that their socioeconomic status was not a factor in developing these disorders. In fact, girls from families in the lowest income bracket studied were 153 percent more likely to be bulimic than girls from the highest income bracket.

So despite the contradicting data, what we do know is that eating disorders do affect Black women. Hopefully, more researchers will include more women of color in their studies so that we can have a better understanding of how prevalent these disorders are in our community and what we can do to effectively treat them.

To learn more about eating disorders and their warning signs, go to the National Eating Disorders Association.

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