Breaking the Silence: The Skinny On Black Girls and Eating Disorders

Sesi Winter 2015 Issue Yara Shahidi
Remember the scene in White Chicks where Lisa has a major meltdown in the dressing room and calls herself “Cellulite Sally”and “Back Fat Betty”? And who can forget Regina George’s constant obsession with losing three pounds in Mean Girls? As funny as those movies are, they perpetuate the stereotype that only rich, white girls can suffer from major body issues. But to keep things all the way 100, eating disorders have no racial, gender, social, or economic boundaries — and they affect more of us than we even realize.
The 411
So, what exactly are eating disorders? And why do some people develop them and others
don’t? Well, for starters, there are three types: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Anorexia is when someone decides to lose weight by refusing to eat;
bulimia, on the other hand, is characterized by extreme overeating, followed by self-induced vomiting, purging, excessive exercise, and/or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or both. Binge eating is the compulsive overeating without the purging. Oftentimes, though, the symptoms of all three can overlap. “Eating disorders are complex illnesses,”
says Dr. Gayle E. Brooks, psychologist, vice president, and chief clinical officer of The Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment facility for women, in Coconut Creek,
Florida. “[There’s] a wide range of factors, including low self-esteem, depression, stress, abusive or troubled relationships, and social pressures to be thin. Over time, an eating disorder can often become a way to help manage painful feelings.”
For 18-year-old Denise R. (who asked that her last name not be included), a soon-to-be college student in Toronto, Canada, the struggle with bulimia and binge eating has been an on again/off again one since she was 13. But her body issues can be traced back to when she just 5. “I had a babysitter and she had a daughter who’s my age and we went to school together,” she says. “I don’t know where she learned this, but she would constantly talk to me about my skin, saying that I looked dirty, I was too big, and I should put powder on my face to look whiter … That’s when I started feeling like there was something wrong with me.” A couple of years later, Denise found out that another friend had been talking about her weight behind her back, and that’s when the attempts to starve herself began.
She was only in second grade.
“My mom would pack me lunch and I just wouldn’t eat it,” Denise says. “I’d throw it out, or it would just be in my bag until it started to rot … I would see diet commercials on TV and I thought they were eating different foods or maybe I shouldn’t be eating. And that was the message I got: People who are fat eat a lot of food. I’m fat and I shouldn’t eat in order to lose weight.”
Read the rest of my feature for Sesi magazine’s winter 2014 issue [here].
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