Every year, the last week of February is a meaningful but difficult week for me. For more than 30 years, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has used this period of time to promote awareness about eating disorders by “educating the public, spreading a message of hope, and putting lifesaving resources into the hands of those in need.” For people like me who have struggled with an eating disorder in the past or continue to today, this can bring up a lot of emotions: reflecting on the mountains you have climbed, healing from the suffering that your eating disorder has caused, and appreciating the importance of sharing these messages of hope. But this year, NEDA awareness week brought up something different for me. A new perspective. This year’s NEDA awareness theme allowed me an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which different identities may be more susceptible to and impacted by eating disorders than others and how privileged I have been to have access to the resources that contributed to my recovery.
This last year has prompted many of us to engage in tough conversations about the reality of racial biases and oppressions in our country. In light of addressing the challenges that minority groups face, NEDA reflected the idea of uplifting marginalized and typically underrepresented voices in their 2021 theme Every Body Has a Seat at the Table. Describing the goals of the awareness campaign, NEDA says, “we invite Every Body to Have a Seat at the Table. In a field where marginalized communities continue to be underrepresented, we welcome conversations on raising awareness, challenging systemic biases, and sharing stories from all backgrounds and experiences.” They discuss the way that despite ongoing research to the contrary, there continues to be a common association between eating disorders and young, heterosexual, white girls. In truth, people across all demographics are affected by, and possibly even particularly vulnerable to, eating disorders. By boxing members of marginalized communities into a category of individuals who are not expected to be susceptible to developing eating disorders, many cases end up going undiagnosed, and less treatment options may be available.
Research from NEDA’s recent infographic on eating disorders and marginalized voices demonstrates the increased risk of eating disorders among young Black individuals today, noting that “Black teenagers are 50% more likely to exhibit bulimic behavior than white teenagers, such as binging and purging.” Women of color also face the burden of dealing with discrimination and racism in their day-to-day lives, which may increase their stress levels and ultimately establish them as a group particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. Despite this elevated susceptibility, this same group of individuals is also far less likely to seek out treatment, potentially for reasons such as mistrust in a healthcare system that is historically ridden with racial discrimination. And even when they do seek treatment, research shows that they may not be taken as seriously. One study expressed this idea with evidence showing that “when presented with identical case studies demonstrating disordered eating symptoms in white, Hispanic, and Black women, 17% of clinicians identified the Black woman’s eating behavior as problematic,” compared with 41% for Hispanic women and 44% for White women.
Considering all of this troubling information leaves no room for doubt that women of color may be at an increased risk not only for developing eating disorders but for being able to find the necessary resources to treat them as well. In a system that is failing to consistently support them, women of color are being left out of the conversation about eating disorders and left out of the efforts to protect against them. And what’s most disturbing to me is that this is not a topic that often gets talked about. NEDA’s 2021 awareness week of Every Body Has a Seat at the Table has started a critical conversation about challenging bias regarding who eating disorders affect and lifting up voices of marginalized individuals who have fought some of these battles, but the conversation cannot end here. If we want to build a world in which every body truly does have a seat at the table, we must actively ensure that they do. We must constantly consider the ways that we can empower the stories of the underrepresented and welcome them into the conversation. Most of all, we should fight to dismantle the stereotype that young, heterosexual White girls are the only ones who struggle with eating disorders. The consequences of this false narrative are dangerous for our society, and especially for women of color who may face an increased risk for developing eating disorders.
As a woman who has struggled with an eating disorder, I think that it’s important for me to consider the ways that other women may be impacted in different ways by the harrowing nature of eating disorders. And as a white woman, I think it’s especially necessary that I address the ways that women of color may be more vulnerable to eating disorders and face barriers to obtaining proper treatment. In recognizing my privilege and how fortunate I have been to have the support and access to the resources necessary to my recovery, I also realize that this is not the case for all women. Unfortunately, marginalized voices have been quieted in the emerging conversation about eating disorders in our society, and this should not be the case. No voice deserves to be excluded from a conversation about topics which directly impact their lives. Listening to the experiences of marginalized communities with eating disorders could offer us the insightful perspective shift that we need to change the way we think about eating disorders in our society and to understand the increased vulnerability that certain groups may have to developing them. NEDA has challenged us to invite every body to have a seat at the table, and now I challenge you to keep the conversation going.
For more information on eating disorders in marginalized communities, visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/marginalized-voices-0. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, talk with a trusted friend or family member, or contact the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline.