A 2009 study found that Black girls are 50% more likely to be bulimic than White girls. Even more shocking was that girls in the lowest income bracket were 153% more likely to be bulimic than girls from the highest. Yet, the eating disorder nonprofit Beat conducted a survey and found that, much like myself, 39% of people believed eating disorders were more prevalent in White people versus other ethnicities — showing just how extreme the difference between public perception and clinical research is.
The survey also found that BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) people feel less confident in seeking help from health professionals due to those very eating disorder stereotypes. But it is no wonder why, when television shows and movies such as; Skins, To The Bone, Overshadowed, and Girl, Interrupted present this narrative that these illnesses are exclusive to White women.
I never thought I had an eating disorder because I am not thin and, as a Black woman, I was under the impression that it was something that didn’t happen to us.
When we do go to get help, we are less likely to get diagnosed, due to race-based stereotypes held by clinicians relating to our socioeconomic status and different perspectives on acceptable body shapes and sizes. Too often, leading researchers believe we are immune to eating disorders due to being more satisfied with our appearance, compared to White people.
Though untrue, this sentiment is exactly why data pertaining to Black women and eating disorders is extremely limited — we are being excluded from research because of it.
In reality, more often than not, we fail to hit the criteria due to these very same diagnostic biases.
This led me to question my situation. Even if I had gone to the doctor, would I have been diagnosed? Or would I have been ushered away and told, “Sometimes people stop eating.”
After all, getting a diagnosis for my other mental health issues was an exercise in patience, restraint, and navigating bias — my first doctor prescribed my issues as “hormonal” (I had just turned 23). You don’t need to look far on social media before finding stories of health care professionals not taking us or our pain seriously. Or how medical students (soon to be qualified doctors) still hold incorrect and racist biological information about our bodies. Black women are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth — the problem so great, that even Serena Williams is speaking out, drawing parallels to her own complicated labor.
There is this world view that Black women, in particular, are indestructible. But the fact is that we live our lives at an intersection of identities that increases our risk of death. All these elements combined will, and are, only exacerbating the problem, making this an urgent issue we need to address in our community.
The most frustrating thing about the whole conversation is how everything we know about obesity, is laced with White supremacy. The body mass index (BMI), for example, is heavily affected by racial bias — due to it being developed using only White participants — yet it is still used to this day.