How Eating Disorders Became A White Women Problem

The media frenzy around anorexia and bulimia in the 1990s ignored prevalence of eating disorders in communities of color.
Kate Moss was the poster child of the "waif wave."
Kate Moss was the poster child of the "waif wave."
Terry O'Neill via Getty Images

If the 1990s had a mascot, it could have been skinny girls. They were everywhere — appearing in magazines and advertisements, gyrating in music videos and starring in popular television shows.

Radical thinness was so de rigueur that a 1993 People cover story dubbed it the “waif wave.” Kate Moss was the movement’s “poster child,” but others repping the fad included casts of hit series like ”Friends” and ”Ally McBeal,” who seemed to be battling one another for peak slimness.

Despite the popularity of the skin-and-bones look, when celebrities admitted to eating disorders, they were censured. When beloved Princess Diana spoke about her bulimia, she received little sympathy from her family. Her husband’s response was to gesture toward her plate and ask, “Is that going to reappear later?” Critics called pop star Fiona Apple “Kate Moss with songs,” emaciated and too thin, even though she admitted to starving herself to cope with the trauma of being raped.

Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal.
Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal.
E.J. FSP/JP/AA via Reuters

That women suffering from eating disorders were insulted is no surprise. But the waif wave coincided with a new social awareness of the connection between extreme thinness and a diagnosis — an eating disorder. Before, skinniness was a marker of a svelte woman’s ability to control her body better than her peers. Now it was a symptom of a sickness.

American culture became obsessed with eating disorders and hyper-focused on one of them, anorexia nervosa, which can be characterized by extreme weight loss, calorie restriction and a gaunt body type. In 1993, an eating disorders counselor told People that her patients believed Moss had the ideal figure. She said she had never before seen such a strong attachment to a particular celebrity body before.

Eating disorders didn’t begin in the 1990s, but they reached a new level of prominence in that decade. Take one look at these famous-for-being-thin women ― not just Kate Moss, Diana and Fiona Apple, but others like ”Ally McBeal” cast members Calista Flockhart, Portia de Rossi and Courtney Thorne-Smith ― and you’ll notice that almost all of them weren’t only thin but also young, affluent and white. The most popular media of the day created and reinforced the narrative that eating disorders only affected women who looked like them. So did the most-cited research; studies seemed to prioritize this group while leaving out non-white women who suffered.

Emerging research linked girls’ body dissatisfaction and disordered eating to the expectations of body perfection flaunted in teen magazines, advertising and Hollywood. What was less explicit was that this media centered on white women, and the research prioritized white girls. In 1995, Newsweek reported on a three-year study from the University of Arizona that found nearly all of 14- to 17-year-old white girls (90 percent) were dissatisfied with their bodies and believed the dream frame was an unachievable 5 feet, 7 inches and 100 to 110 pounds, essentially a Barbie doll. The bestselling book Reviving Ophelia attempted to explain girls’ troubles from a psychologist’s perspective, but the girl on the book’s cover was pale, blue-eyed and blond, suggesting she epitomized all sufferers. Magazine models were mostly wispy and white, bolstering the preposterous body requirement in glossy pages and in seedy back-of-the-book scams like the “Special Teen Diet” and the “Clinic-30 Program,” which promised the secret to extreme weight loss for $12.95 (plus $3 shipping and handling).

Fiona Apple in 2000.
Fiona Apple in 2000.
Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Women of color were practically absent from these representations. They were assumed to not suffer from eating disorders because they reportedly had better body attitudes than their white peers. That same study revealed that 70 percent of black girls were satisfied with their bodies, but coverage of it downplayed the statistic that more than half of them dieted.

Reports cited the fuller figures of Oprah Winfrey, Star Jones and Jennifer Lopez as bodies for women of color to emulate, and they quoted black and Latina girls who said they were proud of their curves. “American black women are much less concerned about being model-thin than white women,” explained a columnist in the Toronto Star. One Miami Herald columnist, a black man, said of Kate Moss, “you’ll hardly ever see a black girl diet that way.”

To explain the differences between white and black women’s body attitudes, Newsweek called the ”Friends” cast “classically beautiful and reed thin” and the stars of ”Living Single” “a less Hollywood ideal” and “black women whose bodies are, well, real.” These attitudes shored up the belief that women of color were happy being larger and therefore didn’t suffer from eating disorders ― as if eating disorders were only a product of what size women wanted to be.

Needless to say, this was incredibly misleading. Research in the early 2000s revealed that women of color did indeed suffer from eating disorders but were being disregarded in media representations and cultural conversations about them. Anorexia, suggested by drastic thinness, wasn’t the only eating disorder out there. Bulimia and binge eating disorder existed then, too, as they do now. In fact, a study presented at the 2002 International Conference on Eating Disorders found that Latina girls were the group most likely to try to lose weight and to binge eat. In 2003, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that black women were as likely as white women to binge eat and abuse laxatives. Experts stressed that black and Latina women were not suddenly getting eating disorders in greater numbers but instead they’d likely had them all along but were ignored by the media coverage and undercounted by the research. It turned out that all women faced pressures to conform to media-concocted body ideals, and not just thin, white ones. A Texas college student put it this way: “People say, ‘You’re Latina, why don’t you look like Jennifer Lopez?’” she told reporter. “You have to have a small waist but big hips and butt.”

Jennifer Lopez represented a rigid body "ideal" for many Latinas.
Jennifer Lopez represented a rigid body "ideal" for many Latinas.
Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images

Recent research has not only disproved the old ways of thinking about eating disorders that hierarchize white women, it has also revealed that women of color suffer from eating disorders, and perhaps in greater numbers. Today we know that eating disorders affect girls and women in every demographic but that black teens may be most at risk. They are 50 percent more likely to practice bulimic behavior than white peers. One study found Latinas exhibit bulimia more often than non-Latinas.

The old depictions fuel the marginalization of people who suffer, and inhibit their diagnoses and recovery. People of color are also far less likely to get help for eating problems than white people, as they’re less likely to be identified as having them by their communities and medical professionals. The truth is that there is not one body, or race or skin color that telegraphs an eating disorder without question. And neither Kate Moss nor what we read, click and research should suggest that there is.

Allison Yarrow is a journalist, a TED resident and the author of 90s Bitch: Women, Media, and The Failed Promise of Gender Equality, forthcoming from Harper Perennial in June.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at (800) 931-2237.

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