#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 In addition, the outdated, antiquated BMI charts and body weight or health research needs to be updated.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 To put it simply, it is beyond outdated.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.

3 Min Read
Business

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.