A few years ago, a young woman wrote into one of my advice columns about her husband's cheating. "Leia" said that she was Afro-Caribbean, raised in Maryland, and her community was rallying around the cheating husband. What loomed even larger than her challenging relationship issue, however, was her relationship with food and her body. Leia insisted that she couldn't stop eating and found herself getting fatter with each of his infidelities. She asked me whether her being "unattractive and obese" was triggering the husband's adultery. Luckily, I had space in one of my coaching programs, so I agreed to work with her one-on-one.
In our first session, it became clear that this beautiful woman had been a compulsive overeater, inflicting self-harm with food, for her entire adult life. However, when I turned the conversation to dealing with her eating disorder, she screamed, "Black women don't have eating disorders!"
"Black Folk Don't" is a public television-funded Web series that takes on stereotypical ideas that people of all backgrounds, including African-Americans, have about what it means to be black. One episode that I was invited to participate in is named "Black Folk Don't... Have Eating Disorders." The idea that black folks or black women don't have eating disorders is a particularly insidious one. The idea persists because surveys like the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll finds that black women are more comfortable in their bodies than non-black women and because African-derived cultures tend to appreciate curvier women. Our interventions based on body image issues more often focus on hair texture and skin color self-hatred.
Like my client Leia, I am of Afro-Caribbean parentage, born and raised in America. When I look at my extended family, I see a microcosm of the health statistics that plague the black community at large. Hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and other illnesses have ravaged the bodies of the people I love. The Centers for Disease Control reports that people of African descent are diagnosed later and as a result more likely to die from some of these preventable maladies. Hypertension, obesity, and diabetes specifically are linked with the ways we eat.
In my Caribbean family, our "soul food" includes fried breads such as roti and bake, saltfish, fried plantain, fattening peas and rice, pepper pot, and a host of meat-laden, heavy stews and dishes. Like other formerly-enslaved peoples, my Guyanese family inherited the methodology of making incredible food from the slave masters leftovers. The food is yummy, but as I heard a Rastafarian say, "People are losing their lives over taste buds." In addition, there is a clear pattern of emotional eating that is laughed off, dismissed or ignored by the intelligent and hard-working people I share genes with. Food is used to celebrate but also as a drug to numb, comfort, and soothe. Food is often a stand in for love.
This is disordered eating. Eating disorders may not always look like the more well-known models of anorexia and bulimia, but emotional eating, food addiction, binge eating, and compulsive eating are disordered eating. There is a category called EDNOS, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, that serves as a clearinghouse for "other" eating disorders. Eating disorders, like other mental health challenges, do not discriminate when it comes to ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or education level. The idea that any group is immune to eating disorders is a damaging one, because if a condition is not acknowledged and diagnosed, it will not be addressed, treated, and healed.
When I made the decision to face my own disordered eating, the yin energy, feminine power tools that I teach were an invaluable resource. I released 55 unhealthy pounds, but more importantly I started to heal my relationship with my body and the meanings I assigned to food.
The only way that I was able to truly begin recovery was to tune into my most sacred self and challenge my belief system. Accessing yin energy self-love principles like being vulnerable and learning to feel my feelings and using them in every aspect of my life is what helped me get to that. Yang energy action steps like working out were necessary too, but they were really secondary. I needed a mindset shift. This had nothing to do with the color of my skin, but everything to do with learning to love myself unconditionally.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.