WhitewashED

Eating Disorders are not just a ‘white girl disease’.

It’s taken me a while to weigh in on everything that has gone on in the last few weeks. The knowledge that I pretty much tick every box regarding privilege was a little disempowering. White privilege, thin privilege, pretty privilege, straight/cis privilege. Given that I also possess zero influence, I felt as though I had no right to contribute to the conversation. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing or seeming ignorant. I’ve sat back and watched everything play out, sought out relevant resources and done my best to listen without judgement. Ultimately, I’ve decided to speak out about the discrimination that has an impact within my own community.

Now, one might assume that exclusion within the ED realm isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sufferers tend to form a love-hate relationship with their illness. Where’s the harm in not being ‘part of the club’? Well, given that EDs can potentially result in death, lack of treatment options for persons of colour is another proverbial nail in the coffin. I have heard this affliction referred to as a ‘white girl disease’ by laypersons and supposed professionals alike. NEDA has a handy infographic regarding this and the statistics are staggering. Clinicians are some of the worst offenders in this regard. Despite being presented with identical case studies demonstrating disordered eating symptoms in white, Black and Hispanic women, only 17% of them identified the Black subjects as having problematic eating patterns. 44% of them determined that the SAME behaviour in white women was disordered.

This misconception is pervasive across media representations of EDs. Apart from BINGE: The Series, To The Bone, The Road Within and the short-lived TV series STARVED, dramatized accounts lack the representation of other ethnicities struggling with this illness. Having personally read multiple first hand accounts in the form of memoirs, even I’ve noticed this gaping hole in diversity. I’ve read one book authored by a black woman and haven’t come across another. In 2006, I vividly remember a black YouTuber describing her extreme eating behaviour. She went on to assert that her doctor told her she couldn’t have an eating disorder because she wasn’t white. How many persons of colour are cast aside in this manner? This is another form of prejudice they have to contend with in a world of bigotry.

The articles I have included links for only support this long-held belief. An enduring theme within these articles indictates a misinterpretation of the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype. The overall perception of this by professionals lends credence to the concept that people of colour aren’t susceptible to developing EDs. Compounded with a mistrust for medical professionals and in some circumstances, lack of resources, it’s not surprising that the statistics have been skewed. What is less helpful is the undeniable fact that ED research has centred on white women. The abscence of such objectiveness only fuels my desire to encourage a paradigm shift. We cannot allow the whitewashing of this illness to continue.

We owe it to the Black community to change our attitudes.

NEDA Infographic:

Articles:

Anorexia and Bulimia are Black Women’s Diseases, Too – Erica Hawkins

Why Black Women are Silently Struggling with Eating Disorders – Brooklyn White

What Black Women Need to Know About Eating Disorders – Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H.

When Black Girls Don’t Eat: Examining the Silence Surrounding Our Eating Disorders – Kinsey Clarke

Racism and Eating Disorder Diagnosis and Treatment – Ginny Jones

Forget Everything You Think You Know About Eating Disorders

Chances are, you or someone you know has been affected by an ED. This illness has been terribly misunderstood, joked about and poorly represented in popular media. There is a great deal of conjecture and psychobabble surrounding this affliction; yet it seems we are no closer to understanding the implications of an illness that seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. My friends, it’s time for a big, steaming pile of FACTS.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.

People outside of the recovery realm don’t tend to be aware of this. At all. According to various studies, it has been this way for half a century. I should mention at this point that only 2% of the Australian population actually meet the diagnostic criteria. It is believed that 20% of Anorexia sufferers die as a result of disease-related complications or suicide. Of our current population, that amounts to 500,000 people diagnosed with Anorexia and 100,000 dying from it. Yup, the entire follower count of a micro-influencer has or will be lost to Anorexia.

Binge-Eating Disorder and Bulimia are more commonly diagnosed.

The waif-like, heroin-chic stereotype has received a heck of a lot more exposure over the years compared to her less palatable counterparts. 3.2% of the population are believed to suffer from Bulimia while 7.7% suffer from Binge-Eating disorder. My guess is that it’s probably a lot more than that given how judgemental people are; overconsumption is seen as a mere ‘lack of willpower’ in our society. If I were experiencing true, diagnosed binge-eating, you’d have to waterboard me before I’d admit to it. I know people think purging is even more messed up. So one can assume that the statistics are approximate, at best. Both diseases cite episodes of binge-eating as part of the diagnostic criteria; the only distinction being the absence of compensatory behaviours (fasting, overexercising, purging, diet pill abuse) in the case of BED.

Binge-Eating Disorder and Extreme Hunger are not the same thing.

I want to throat punch 21 year old me for self-diagnosing. I was heavily restrictive in my eating habits and my brain was trying to remedy this by intensifying my hunger signals, causing ‘post-starvation hyperphagia’(extreme hunger). My long – suffering body was trying to restore itself and I kept messing with it by continuing to under-eat. So the whole restrict/binge cycle rolled on and I decided that I had binge eating disorder. If someone had just bloody told me that this was normal and that I needed to listen to my body in order to reach homeostasis, I could have bypassed another decade with this illness. So for anyone operating under the assumption that they have binge-eating disorder; first ensure that you aren’t just overeating following periods of restriction. Honour your extreme hunger until you’ve eaten your way out of the caloric deficit you’ve created. I’ve crunched the numbers and my deficit is probably around seven figures. Probably best to avoid getting to that point, yeah?

Restrictive Eating Disorders have nothing to do with ‘control’.

Sorry to screw with the narrative you may have bought into over the years. It’s fast becoming the most infuriating explanation of this complex neurobiological disorder I’ve come across thus far. This theory fails to explain every physiological and neurological symptom that may emerge. I’ve believed this tripe until recently, so don’t feel bad. I will add a more in-depth explanation at a later date but eating disorders are a construct of our most primitive reaction to a scarce and/or threatening environment. For those with the genetic disposition, a simple diet can trigger the response that has been seen in migrating animals during famine and in certain kinds of piglets when they are denied access to food. In order to survive, they moved obsessively (in search of a food source), experienced anxiety if they did stop to eat (inherently dangerous in that environment) and failed to perceive their withering bodies correctly. Eating was a threat to their survival until they deemed it safe to cease migrating. In short, this ‘feeling of control’ we’re supposedly experiencing is just a lack of anxiety because we haven’t triggered the threat response by eating.

We look like utter crap when we’re sick so why do y’all think this is about vanity?

I rarely managed to reach or even remain at the ‘illustrious’ BMI of 17. When I refer to that particular number, I’m citing the archaic diagnostic AN criteria in the DSM – IV, which still existed when I first became ill. A badge of honour in the Pro-Ana communities I was a part of. If I ever dipped into that range, my friends would usually express concern for me. In order to keep my secret, I would cite stress as the cause and proceed to gain a little bit of weight. At my lowest point, I was a pretty pathetic sight to behold. I was covered in bruises, my pants sagged at my non-existent rear, I barely filled an A-cup, my skin was sallow under the layer of makeup I’d taken to wearing, I was embarrassed by my prominent ribs and my hair was falling out in chunks. These symptoms weren’t breaking news to me, I had been eating my former bodyweight in vitamins (and little else, duh) for months in an attempt to prevent them occurring. Yet, I couldn’t stop losing the weight. I knew I was hideous and people were shocked at my appearance; tell me again that this was about a silly diet, looking like a model or little more than a phase. I did not want to resemble a corpse and Lanugo – my very own human fur coat – was most certainly not on my bucket list.

People with Binge-Eating Disorder are subject to such undeserved criticism.

Research has suggested that people with true BED are hard-wired to have the opposite reaction to those with a predisposition to Anorexia. They’re genetically programmed to eat more, put simply. Studies have concluded that they often lack hormones in their gut that signal satiety to the brain and that individuals in bigger bodies are likely to gain and hold onto weight if their brain perceives their environment as threatening. Fight or flight is relative here; they experience an increase in hunger signals so that they overeat into an energy surplus. This is in preparation to flee or so that they are able to defend themselves. That’s why it’s now believed that victims of sexual assault sometimes turn to overeating so that they’re no longer attractive to those who have victimised them. Is that not a means of defending oneself? I wish that people understood how much shame ED sufferers experience. Perhaps it might finally be understood that willpower has nothing to do with it. In fact, these people should be admired for living their lives whilst in the throes of such debilitating circumstances.

Eating Disorders aren’t a ‘white girl disease’ or exclusive to the middle class.

We don’t have adequate data to determine the rates of Eating Disorders in underdeveloped countries. When an individual is in a constant state of impoverishment, their brain activity is highly abnormal due to malnutrition. Testing would prove inaccurate if under eating has occurred long term or within prior generations. A lack of access to mental health services and the subsequent inability to report symptoms has also prevented a collation of correct information. Given the sheer volume of citizens living in abject poverty, starvation is common and therefore one can assume that ED’s are as well.

Now, I can list several male celebrities who have admitted to having dealt with Eating Disorders; Elton John, Dennis Quaid, Russell Brand, Uri Geller, Daniel Johns, Billy Bob Thornton, Richard Simmons.

Those are just off the top of my head. Don’t even get me started on some male bodybuilders…that’s a whole other post entirely. Eating Disorders are many things but they sure aren’t racist, sexist little jerks. They accept every gender, creed and ethnicity into their fold. Bless their cold, brittle, multicultural little hearts.

We can’t just ‘stop.’

Trust me, if I could just stop, I would have. I wouldn’t have sacrificed my health, my sanity and my fertility just for the glory of being small. If it were a matter of just ‘putting down the burger’ cases of diagnosed BED wouldn’t be on the rise. As I’ve explained, these disorders are a primitive reaction, out of place in our modern world.

I don’t have all the answers and there are aspects of this that I don’t fully understand yet. I’m not the kind of person who can sit with this kind of information and not bestow it upon those who are willing to learn. If we don’t know, we can’t begin to help ourselves and we certainly can’t begin to persuade others that these disorders aren’t a shitty lifestyle we’ve chosen for ourselves.

Disclaimer: I’m using statistics that I’ve pulled from an Australian database given that it’s where I’m from and where I can potentially begin to change things within the recovery realm.