#SWAAYthenarrative

Women of Color: The Eating Disorder Survivors Who Suffer in Silence

8 Min Read
Culture

Since I was 12 years old, I have struggled with an eating disorder. For me, being a woman of color and having atypical anorexia was definitely uncommon. In my own personal experience, we never really spoke about anxiety or depression, so you can imagine the lack of conversation around having a healthy relationship with food. In the African American culture, the more curves you have the better, and if you don't have curves, you know you aren't the picture-perfect small waisted, ample-bottom stereotypical Black woman.

That comes with its own set of challenges. As Black women, we have been conditioned by that stereotypical image of what we are supposed to be from the women we see portrayed in music videos and other media. It's everywhere. But we don't talk about it. So I want to address why I went undiagnosed for 26 years of my life.

Eating disorders are anxiety disorders that are attached to food. Over the past few months, even years, we have seen a social media frenzy over the body positive movement. But, unfortunately, diet culture continues to try and wiggle into that. As a society and culture, we have to demand that this war against women and their bodies must be stopped. In addition, the outdated, antiquated BMI charts and body weight or health research needs to be updated.

As Black women, we have been conditioned by that stereotypical image of what we are supposed to be from the women we see portrayed in music videos and other media.

My personal theory is that because of my ethnicity, I wasn't skinny enough. The BMI chart, better known as Body Mass Index, is a chart that doctors use to categorize how much fat you have and screens for potential weight categories based on the ratio of your weight to your height. The problem with this chart is that it doesn't account for genetics, muscle distribution, or any other additional factors beyond weight, height, and gender. To put it simply, it is beyond outdated.

I dreaded going to the doctor every year for my physical because I knew that I would hear about how my BMI was too high, and that reminder would further trigger me to continue restricting my calorie intake. I was very sick for over half of my life, and it had nothing to do with my actual weight. It had to do with the messages I was recieve about that weight. When I was finally noticed and diagnosed, healthcare professionals just assumed I binged. Truth be told, I've never binged a day in my life. I don't overeat, I've always under-eaten.

Yet every time I went in for my physicals and the scale reflected upward changes in my weight, doctors were always concerned with me eating too much. It was not until I went to an eating disorder therapist and an intuitive eating dietician and nutritionist that I found someone to make sure I was eating enough. For years, I was malnourished — restricting and purging via enemas and laxatives. But because my BMI looked good when I was younger, no one even considered there was something wrong with me, and yet I was sicker than ever.

This has always been a sensitive topic to write about, mainly because I lived undiagnosed for a very long time and thought I was behaving normally. When I was diagnosed, I lived in denial for a few months pretending that my therapist was wrong. Pretending everything is okay is a lot easier than facing the shit you've spent your life trying to bury. I let food and the fear of being fat rule my life. I became anxious and got angry when I couldn't exercise because I worried that everything I ate would go straight to my stomach and thighs. I thought the worst thing in the world was going up to double digits in clothing sizes. I didn't want to be seen as plus size. So I restricted and harmed my body in ways that would take a lot of time to heal.

I dreaded going to the doctor every year for my physical because I knew that I would hear about how my BMI was too high, and that reminder would further trigger me to continue restricting my calorie intake.

So, you may ask, why now? Why this sudden burst of courage to write about a topic that the majority of women struggle with? Well, are you ready for this? Recently, my 9-year-old daughter and I were eating lunch with my mom at a popular Italian restaurant chain. Because I know my daughter's eating habits and I'm recovering from an eating disorder, I am hypervigilant about any food-restrictive behaviors. Anyone who struggles with this knows it's hell and that it takes a long while to form new, healthy relationships with food and your body. So, if you can catch it before it takes root, you will be much better off in the long run.

My daughter, who doesn't know about my food issues and who is not overweight, ordered pasta with marinara and a side of broccoli. This would've been fine, had it been someone else's kid or if it was what my daughter was intuitively craving. I observed quietly, and as her food arrived, I watched her pick over her pasta, barely eating anything. One could assume one of two things: either she wasn't hungry or she didn't like her food. I knew it wasn't the former, because before we ate, she was saying how hungry she was, so it had to be the latter. Not liking what you order is one thing, but I asked curiously why she didn't order her usual alfredo pasta. Her response? She said it had too many calories. I'm like, "How do you even know that?"

This restaurant had placed calories on a kid's menu. In my opinion, calories should be banned from all menus because it's extremely triggering for those recovering from eating disorders, thus potentially perpetuating these disorders, especially in young people.

As you can imagine, my head was about to explode and I had to restrain myself from storming out of the restaurant. However, I kept in mind that this was a teachable moment. I asked my sweet little innocent baby girl if my suspicions were correct and if she had ordered something that she didn't want because of the calories on the menu.

She was very honest but also ashamed. We have talked extensively before about eating what you are hungry for, whether it's a salad or a cheeseburger, and that neither choice is better than the other. I have always taught her that she has complete food freedom. She doesn't have to be "good" when it comes to food. I spoke to the waiter explaining she didn't like the item she ordered and that she'd like the Alfredo to go. The server was kind and didn't make me pay, but I wouldn't have cared either way.

You cannot put a price on emotional health. She knew this was done out of love, and when she got in the car, she ate all of the Alfredo and said, "Thank you mommy, this is yummy for my tummy." I could've cried. These are the moments when we have the opportunity to change the narrative for our children — to undo the damage that our culture has done. We have to teach our girls that they are not their bodies. They are more than what's on the outside. They need to know that most of what's on social media and TV is filtered. We have to teach them that beauty is the kindness in their hearts and the love in their actions. We have to show them how to lift other women up and how to have good relationships with other women.

I've often wondered how my teenage son fits into this conversation. We have a responsibility to educate our sons, as well, to take a stand against fatphobia and not tolerate this kind of discrimination. We have to change our wording, and if we hear name-calling or commenting on body parts, it's a swift "No, thank you!" My son knows not to even try it, at least in front of me.

I am all for self-improvement, but only when it's something that a woman wants to do on her own accord — not because society wants her to or is telling her she should.

I'll be 40 years old in a few months, and over the years, I've had a few surgeries to improve my external physique. Do I regret doing these procedures? No, not at all. Am I ashamed I did them? No. Do I disagree with weight loss surgeries, plastic surgery, or enhancements made to the body? No. What I don't like about these types of procedures is how they are marketed. The notion is that if I do this or that to my body, I'll be liked and accepted as beautiful. It's this commitment to perfection that is maddening, and it's creeping into the way our little girls are viewing themselves and their peers. This obsession with perfection, desire for acceptance by a majority of people they may never meet on social media, and the demands of our fatphobic society are worsening this already horrific mental health epidemic.

I am all for self-improvement, but only when it's something that a woman wants to do on her own accord — not because society wants her to or is telling her she should.

Do we need more qualified practitioners? Yes. Do we need to make these resources accessible to those in underserved communities? A resounding yes! Do we need to give more focus and attention to the eating disorder community? Yes. But we also need to check ourselves on how we are making these messages that the perfect body exists, or that it's okay to be fatphobic and cruel to people in the world who live in larger bodies.

We aren't innocent of this, and it is actually shameful the way we disrespect and treat the community of women who have larger bodies. Social media is a huge supporter of these messages. There are so many sponsored fitness programs, cleanses, juice fasts, and all other types of orthorexic (an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy foods) behavior. The diet industry makes roughly $60 billion a year on "helping" people "achieve" the perfect body. But the reality is that "perfect" doesn't exist.

The overall message here should be that we don't have to be anything or anyone other than who we are. Confidence is the most attractive quality any person can have, regardless of the size body they live in. Mental and physical health at every size is possible and that is the only thing we need to be concerned with. Be free to be who you are, whatever that looks like.

This article was originally published June 3, 2020.

How to Learn Much More From the Books You Read

It is one thing to read and another thing to understand what you are reading. Not only do you want to understand, but also remember what you've read. Otherwise, we can safely say that if we're not gaining anything from what we read, then it's a big waste of time.

Whatever you read, there are ways to do so in a more effective manner to help you understand better. Whether you are reading by choice, for an upcoming test, or work-related material, here are a few ways to help you improve your reading skills and retain that information.

Read with a Purpose

Never has there been a shortage of great books. So, someone recommended a great cookbook for you. You start going through it, but your mind is wandering. This doesn't mean the cookbook was an awful recommendation, but it does mean it doesn't suit nor fulfill your current needs or curiosity.

Maybe your purpose is more about launching a business. Maybe you're a busy mom and can't keep office hours, but there's something you can do from home to help bring in more money, so you want information about that. At that point, you won't benefit from a cookbook, but you could gain a lot of insight and find details here on how-to books about working from home. During this unprecedented year, millions have had to make the transition to work from home, and millions more are deciding to do that. Either way, it's not a transition that comes automatically or easily, but reading about it will inform you about what working from home entails.

Pre-Read

When you pre-read it primes your brain when it's time to go over the full text. We pre-read by going over the subheadings, for instance, the table of contents, and skimming through some pages. This is especially useful when you have formal types of academic books. Pre-reading is a sort of warm-up exercise for your brain. It prepares your brain for the rest of the information that will come about and allows your brain to be better able to pick the most essential pieces of information you need from your chosen text.

Highlight

Highlighting essential sentences or paragraphs is extremely helpful for retaining information. The problem, however, with highlighting is that we wind up highlighting way too much. This happens because we tend to highlight before we begin to understand. Before your pages become a neon of colored highlights, make sure that you only highlight what is essential to improve your understanding and not highlight the whole page.

Speed Read

You might think there have been no new ways to read, but even the ancient skill of reading comes up with innovative ways; enter speed reading. The standard slow process shouldn't affect your understanding, but it does kill your enthusiasm. The average adult goes through around 200 to 250 words per minute. A college student can read around 450 words, while a professor averages about 650 words per minute, to mention a few examples. The average speed reader can manage 1,500 words; quite a difference! Of course, the argument arises between quality and quantity. For avid readers, they want both quantity and quality, which leads us to the next point.

Quality Reading

Life is too short to expect to gain knowledge from just one type of genre. Some basic outcomes of reading are to expand your mind, perceive situations and events differently, expose yourself to other viewpoints, and more. If you only stick to one author and one type of material, you are missing out on a great opportunity to learn new things.

Having said that, if there's a book you are simply not enjoying, remember that life is also too short to continue reading it. Simply, close it, put it away and maybe give it another go later on, or give it away. There is no shame or guilt in not liking a book; even if it's from a favorite author. It's pretty much clear that you won't gain anything from a book that you don't even enjoy, let alone expect to learn something from it.

Summarize

If you're able to summarize what you have read, then you have understood. When you summarize, you are bringing up all the major points that enhance your understanding. You can easily do so chapter by chapter.

Take a good look at your life and what's going on in it. Accordingly, you'll choose the material that is much more suitable for your situation and circumstances. When you read a piece of information that you find beneficial, look for a way to apply it to your life. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn't all that beneficial. But the application of knowledge from a helpful book is what will help you and make your life more interesting and more meaningful.