We Must Stop Thinking That Eating Disorders Don’t Affect People Of Color
Eating disorders aren’t just a white woman problem — and it’s dangerous to assume they are.
Each year, Eating Disorder Awareness Week works to shed light on an issue affecting more than 30 million people in the U.S. and 1.6 million people in the UK alone. And if you’ve been following the many stories that have been published this week to reflect the experiences of those struggling, you may have been led to believe that all of these millions of people are white.
In this way, Eating Disorder Awareness Week is no different than the rest of the year.
There’s no denying that eating disorders (EDs) have long been whitewashed. Pieces on eating disorders — be they thoughtful think pieces or “diet by day, binge by night” clickbait — are more often than not accompanied by the obligatory stock image of a white woman (and typically an affluent-looking one at that). And while roundups of celebrities who’ve overcome EDs are well-meaning in their encouraging of women the world over to open up about their struggles, they, too, often feature a sea of white faces.
There’s no denying that eating disorders have long been whitewashed.
Even eating disorder charities can be guilty of perpetuating the myth that women of color don’t struggle with eating disorders. Just take one leading charity’s homepage, which is rife with images of white women; of the 18 pages worth of case studies that feature women’s experiences of beating their eating disorders, not one non-white face appears.
Research, too, has largely erased the experiences of women of color. NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association, notes that relatively little research has been conducted utilizing participants from racial and ethnic minority groups.
When ED charities and researchers fail to acknowledge that non-white women can be affected by eating disorders, they set up a paradigm of erasure and shame. It’s hard enough to seek help for an eating disorder; it’s even harder when you can’t find your experience reflected in the media.
Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and the author of Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder?, says that a lack of representation “might cause [a woman of color] to question her experience.”
It’s hard enough to seek help for an eating disorder; it’s even harder when you can’t find your experience reflected in the media.
This was true for many of the women with EDs I spoke to for this piece. As Amina*, 19, a London-based student of Pakistani heritage who struggled with anorexia for four years, put it to me: “I felt like a fraud. As I wasn’t white, I didn’t feel like I ‘fit’ with the stereotype.”
All of this is particularly troubling when you consider that EDs among women of color are actually on the rise. According to NEDA, “there has been increasing evidence of disordered eating occurring among racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.”
This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, it’s imperative that we debunk the myth that eating disorders are a “white woman” problem.
Because they’re not.
“Brown girls from Sri Lanka aren’t meant to have such ‘white’ issues.”
This is how Sasha, 24, a London-based engineer from Sri Lanka who has battled bulimia and anorexia for 10 years, describes the guilt she felt about having an ED. “I felt like I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to have one,” she says; as a result, she struggled to come forward for help.
There are many reasons women like Sasha are routinely left out of the eating disorder narrative. But not surprisingly, crude stereotyping has played a particularly significant role. As NEDA puts it:
“It is sometimes speculated that women from racial and ethnic minority groups are ‘immune’ to developing eating disorders because their cultural identity provides some amount of protection against body image disturbances.”
In reality, of course, the situation is far more nuanced than this. “Contemporary theories regarding the development of disordered eating include sociocultural, environmental, and genetic factors,” NEDA points out. “These same factors are applicable to women of racial and ethnic minority groups as well.” (It’s also worth noting that people of all genders can also be impacted by eating disorders.)
NEDA highlights research showing that people of color may internalize dominant values of beauty, and notes that the stress of having to navigate two cultures, and contend with abuse, racism, and poverty, can play a role as well.
Amina says that the shame she felt as a woman of color experiencing disordered eating “stopped me from telling anyone [about my eating disorder] for six months.” And she adds that she “found it easier to talk to my white friends than my Asian ones. I was scared of people not understanding me and thinking it was a choice.” Amina says this shame is why she allowed her ED to get “progressively worse” over time.
In general, “coming out” can be fraught with pitfalls. Humaira, 22, a British Asian Muslim who has battled anorexia for six years, describes family events as an “incredibly tense experience” as a result of the pressure she felt to “prove” the validity of what she was going through.
This lack of acceptance also extends, troublingly, to the medical community. Humaira says she found it difficult to get referred by her GP until she was “critically ill.” And Sasha recalls that after being admitted to hospital in Sri Lanka, her health-care professional complained that “this is what happens when our culture isn’t maintained and the younger generation gets more westernized.”
In the face of this erasure, some women of color with EDs have resorted to establishing their own online support groups. On the surface, this might seem like the one place where race shouldn’t play a central role; after all, women with shared experiences, be it bipolar disorder or trichotillomania, should be able to come together in a safe space.
But women of color with EDs can feel marginalized and even alienated in traditional support groups largely filled with white women. In the mainstream eating disorder recovery groups I’ve encountered, posts focus on triggers and struggling with weight gain, but don’t ever explore the unique challenges that can go hand-in-hand with being a woman of color with an ED.
For women of color with eating disorders, feeling marginalized, even alienated, can be a very real threat.
It isn’t unusual for women of color seeking ED support to encounter “microaggressions and whitesplaining,” according to Maryland-based student Marisa, who founded her own support group for WoC. She recalls posts in groups not geared toward people of color involving “people posting about how BLM [Black Lives Matter] was reverse racism. In another group, someone posted about a black man that was abusing an animal and everyone was saying how they wish they had their guns.”
“I didn’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through just to seek a support group,” Marisa tells me. While she says that she “feels bad” about not allowing white women to join the group she started, “I want it to be a place where people of color can find support—and just that.”
Optimistically, organizations are also starting to make an active commitment to a more inclusive approach to eating disorders — the home page for Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, stresses that people of all ages, genders, and ethnic groups can be affected (though ironically enough, the page is accompanied by that obligatory stock image of a white woman).
But it’s worth asking: Are these efforts going far enough?
Many have advocated for support tailored to women of color as a logical next step. Eating disorder treatment is arguably a “one size fits all approach” that has yet to take into account the unique needs of communities of color.
For Humaira, it can be frustrating “having a therapist who doesn’t understand you, or spending sessions explaining things about your culture and background when that time could be better spent engaging in therapy.” And she stresses that specialist support should also extend to family therapy: “Our parents are often first generation immigrants who often have no idea mental illnesses even exist.”
Eating disorder treatment is arguably a ‘one size fits all approach’ that has yet to take into account the unique needs of communities of color.
Humaira notes that the invisibility of people of color from the mainstream is really a testament to broader social forces at play: namely, the “disposable” nature of black and brown bodies, from police shootings to rarely being mourned in terror attacks abroad. As she says, “White bodies get sympathy from the general public in a way that PoC bodies never do.”
Here’s hoping that Eating Disorder Awareness Week might do a U-turn in the coming years, and finally recognize the voices — and bodies — that have gone unacknowledged for far too long.