Topic Tuesday: Race & ED

“Race and Eating Disorders” (By: Emily Heard)

I put a lot of thought into posting this considering what is going on in the world. While I often celebrate milestones like this more privately, I believe that today’s milestone is relevant to the current conversation surrounding race and specifically white privilege in America.

5 years ago I discharged inpatient treatment for Anorexia. I had first entered treatment almost a year before, but this second round and second discharge will always mean the most to me. This was the day I moved back home and decided to do the real work- to get up every day and take responsibility for my life and my well-being.

A couple of weeks ago I was hiking in Arizona and a song from treatment all those years ago echoed through the red rocks while my siblings laughed in the background.  I was once again reminded that this life and this feeling of contentment was everything that I never thought I could have. I am completely and utterly in love with my life.

But how did I get here? You might reply with “a lot of work and therapy” to which I would say- yes, but also a lot of privilege. I do not celebrate this milestone without awareness of the blatant privilege I had as a white affluent female seeking treatment for an eating disorder.

My privilege was evident from the day I was diagnosed. I had more than just the financial privilege of affording the visit and treatment itself, but also the privilege of being white. I walked in, met the stereotype, and kinda walked out. I was taken seriously partly because I was white. Black women are screened and diagnosed with eating disorders at dramatically lower rates than white women. Is that because black women are less likely to have eating disorders? No. Black teenagers are estimated to be 50% more likely than white teenagers to have an eating disorder. But that isn’t what you see- is it? The ads for treatment centers, the poorly constructed health class videos, the celebrities speaking out.

Eating disorders are portrayed as a white problem and many treatment providers aren’t willing or aware enough to recognize and treat eating disorders in different populations. Where does that leave Black women? Where does that leave Indigenous women, Hispanic women, women (or men) of any race or ethnicity suffering though unimaginable pain?

The truth is… we don’t really know where that leaves them. There is barely any research on people of color’s experiences of eating disorders. Why is there no research? Why is there no funding? Is it because the value we put on rehabilitating the white population is different than the value we put on others? Is it because there are dramatically different cultural values at play when considering treatment? Is it because we have dehumanized the black body to the point that it is considered completely dispensable to even the top mental health practitioners? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that while eating disorders are complex, there are some common themes. And if you think through these themes, it becomes easier to imagine how Black women could be suffering at even higher rates than we have previously documented.

One commonality is the struggle to express or meet one’s emotional needs- which in-turn leads to those emotions being expressed through one’s body. Between identity schemas of the strong black woman and the policing of emotions (ex. anger), society has given a clear expectation of who is allowed to display different emotions. Without a healthy or recognized outlet for those emotions, something like eating patterns may begin to shift.

Another commonality is feelings of lack of self-worth due to trauma, perfectionism, etc. An eating disorder acts as a way to cope and/or punish oneself for these heavy emotions. We know that trauma has strong ties to eating disorders. Therefore, when we have data showing how microaggressions, internalized shame, and blatant racism affect people psychologically, shouldn’t we consider that? Shouldn’t we explore how these traumas and pieces fit into a larger narrative about eating disorders and who should be targeted for awareness and treatment campaigns?

The last one I will list tonight is what many consider the most obvious- hatred for one’s physical body. This can be due to expectations from others, violence perpetrated on the body itself, bullying, etc. Regardless of the root, “the body does not exist outside of the society that gives it meaning”. How does society do this? Well for many dehumanization functions through the objectification of specific groups of people. Objectification of the body leads to violence. What that violence looks like is widespread. It is not just slavery, domestic violence, or police brutality- it is also underfunded schools and community resources, lack of housing, stripped wages, and countless other things. All these components compound to create what people in the mental health community could refer to as “the perfect storm”. I and so many others have said it before, and I will say it again- eating disorders do not discriminate. And if we truly believe that eating disorders are affecting other populations disproportionately, shouldn’t we be willing to take the next step and examine why that is?

Today I celebrate a milestone that so many will never be given the opportunity to reach. I may feel joy and gratitude about my own progress, but I also feel anger. I’m angry about those who feel hollow inside and yet never felt they had the ability or the right to ask for help. I’m angry because I know that today as is true everyday- people died from eating disorders. I’m angry because many of them were drowning in shame from stigma and never realized that they deserved help.

So as I continue to find ways to take that anger and work towards transformative change in myself and in the recovery community, know that there are resources for you or your loved ones.

To those who walked with me through my recovery at any point in the last 5-6 years, please know that I am so thankful for your existence and your part in my healing. You know who you are, and you are so incredibly loved. And to those who have never gotten the chance to get the help that they needed; the journey can begin now. It’s not too late. You are worthy. You are not alone. And eating disorders do not discriminate.

About the Author

Emily Heard is a Nashville native and is currently studying psychology and public health at American University in Washington, D.C. She continues to explore how nature and movement can aid in the long term recovery process and hopes to share her discoveries with others. Emily is thankful for all the support from her loved ones, outpatient team, Renfrew Center of Brentwood and Center for Change in her recovery.