Sitting with a colleague after work, I asked, "Do you know anyone who is African American and has an eating disorder?" My colleague, who is aware of my history, sat back in her chair and without pause said yes. Then I asked a follow up question that I rarely ever do..."Do they consider themselves eating disordered?" A quick "Oh heavens no" came my way. This wasn't a surprise, but it was as if I heard it anew. After a long pause, I asked "why we don't ever talk about it," and we just shared a smile and a shrug of the shoulder.
"I cannot have an eating disorder, I'm African American. We aren't supposed to get eating disorders. We don't get eating disorders. What does that mean about me and my cultural identity?" Nothing. It means you have an eating disorder and you need treatment.
I understood. I understood all too well. Not only is admitting that you have an eating disorder one of the bravest acts that a sufferer can ever do (in fact some people don't say it until it can be phrased in the past tense), but to admit an eating disorder when you don't fit the "mold" is still simply unconscionable for some. Being an African American with an eating disorder does not take away from your identification with your ethnic heritage unless you let it.
There is still a pressure for African Americans to behave as if their singular actions represent the entire race. This is typified through Barack Obama. (If he fails it reflects badly on the race, succeeds a different outcome). It is laying two dolls out in front of a girl; one white and one black. Which is she "supposed" to play with or wish to be like? Why should she have to choose? People report by not identifying closely with the Black heritage, they felt unfaithful. Seeking treatment often brings up those same feelings of being disloyal to the community, however health comes first.
A recent conversation with Stephanie Covington Armstrong served only to confirm my own experiences. The isolation and self loathing that people feel in these disorders is compounded when they feel that they have succumbed to a "white girl's illness." These self imposed prison sentences can be commuted when we find community and let people help.
Any disclosure of disordered eating by someone can be tragic if the receiver is not knowledgeable about the changing face of eating disorders. Disclosure also doesn't mean readiness to act. It may still be pre-contemplation. We must listen and be ready. If you are suffering, you must know that your doctors and therapists do want to know what is going on with you. We know from studies that all ethnicities and both genders suffer from eating disorders. Why aren't we talking about it?
There is more to life than body shame, scales and weight worry. Invite yourself to live that life too.