Eating disorders quietly plague black communities

theGRIO REPORT - Although white women were once thought to be the sole group battling eating disorders, over the past few years, reports of eating disorders among minorities -- particularly African-Americans -- have increased...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Although white women were once thought to be the sole group battling eating disorders, over the past few years, reports of eating disorders among minorities — particularly African-Americans — have increased.

Stephanie Covington Armstrong, an African-American woman, shares her struggles with bulimia with theGrio.

Raised in Brooklyn, NY, Covington said she grew up poor and dealt with a series of issues that impacted her childhood, including poor eating habits, low self-esteem, and rape. She believes these traumas led to her eating disorder.

“I started thinking that something was wrong with me… that I wasn’t lovable… and that I was damaged,” she said. “So the way that I was able to kind of calm those fears was with food. My eating would push down all of those fears, and my eating disorder pushed over the edge.”

Covington emphasized that the eating disorder gradually took over her entire life.

“My eating disorder was like a slow build,” she said. “I definitely had issues with food and disordered eating. I dieted. I exercised. I took laxatives, Dexatrim, slim fast, but I was never overweight. I just always wanted to have some control around my food.”

At the height of her struggle, she said she suffered in isolation and silence because she felt ashamed of not living up to the “strong black woman” archetype.

“I think that in the African-American community secrets are normal,” she said. “I was told that African-Americans don’t have eating disorders and I had family members and friends who would say to me ‘just go to church’ or ‘just don’t talk about it.’”

This advice made Covington’s disorder worse.

“It was really isolating because I didn’t feel that I could go to anyone to talk about it, and I think that really contributed to my keeping it closeted.”

Before she could heal, Covington realized that she had to step outside of her fear of revealing her illness to the African-American community. She finally sought help and recovered with therapy and with the help of the National Eating Disorders Association. There is also this Clementine eating disorder treatment program for adolescents in St Louis.

As she sought help, she wrote a book about her experiences to help others — particularly African-Americans — who were also struggling with eating disorders.

“I had nowhere to go because no one had ever written about black girls having issues with food, so I felt like I had to write my [own] book,” she said.

After releasing her book called Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, Covington said that numerous African-Americans contacted her through her website to seek advice about their personal struggle with eating disorders. Additionally, many thanked her for sharing her story.

“People whom I have known for years — like my best friend’s sister and my friends — opened up to me that they had had eating disorders for years,” she said. “I get so many stories and a lot of them coming from African-Americans.”

Dr. Ira Sacker, who is an eating disorders specialist and visiting professor at the Langone New York University Hospital and Medical Center, said that he has seen people of every age and race suffering with eating disorders.

“Eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect all cultures, genders, socioeconomic groups and ages,” Dr. Sacker told theGrio. “Eating disorders are a spectrum from anorexia nervosa on one end to binge eating and compulsive overeating disorders on the other end.”

Sacker, who authored the book Dying to be Thin and more recently, Regaining Your Self: Understanding and Conquering the Eating Disorder Identity, said that the number of those suffering from eating disorders has increased exponentially.

“It used to be 20 females to one male, but now it is approximately six females to one male,” he said. “Eating disorders have the greatest morbidity and mortality of all mental disorders.”

Though relatively little research has been conducted on eating disorders among different ethnicities, National Eating Disorders Association Chief Executive Officer Lynn Grefe said that the research that exists shows that minorities have eating disorders at almost the same rate as whites.

“I’m frustrated, because we know that minority populations have eating disorders, and we know that they basically have them at the same rate as the Caucasian population,” Grefe said. “However, they are under-reported and they are under-diagnosed. So why is it that we just can’t get them to come forward?”

Grefe said that the reports show that people are embarrassed and feel that eating disorders do not exist in their particular culture and, as such, cannot broach the topic.

“However, it’s sad,” Grefe said, “because they are not getting diagnosed, and therefore, they’re not getting the help that they need.”

Additionally, Grefe said that cost is another limitation to reaching out for help. Many African-Americans are unable to afford treatment for their eating disorder without insurance.

Since many minorities — especially African-Americans — are not seeking help for their eating disorders, the exact statistics on the prevalence of eating disorders are limited.

“Our numbers are almost nonexistent,” Grefe said. “I’m not sure why no one is really looking into this and it concerns us greatly, because we hear it through the grape vine and we hear it through our national help line that minorities have eating disorders.”

Within the last few years, some research has actually revealed that more African-Americans, specifically, suffer from bulimia than whites.

In 2009, economists conducted a research study over ten years involving more than 2,300 school-age girls in California, Ohio and Washington, D.C. During the study, researchers interviewed the nine and ten-year-old girls annually about their eating habits, body image, and psychological issues, such as depression.

At the end of the study, results revealed that the black teenagers were 50 percent more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, such as binging and purging. Additionally, teens from low-income families were 153 percent more likely to be bulimic than girls from wealthy families.

“Although anorexia is more prone toward the Caucasian race for whatever reason, we do know that blacks have binging disorders; we know that they have bulimia; we know that that they are using laxatives, and doing unhealthy behaviors,” Grefe said.

Twelve-year-old dancer Eden Sannaa Duncan-Smith told theGrio that she has noticed her African-American friends developing eating disorders.

“There are many gymnasts at my school and sometimes they think that they are not skinny enough, so they stop,” Duncan-Smith said. “They don’t eat in public, or they just don’t eat at all and they get really pale after a while. They do this so that they can be skinnier, but they are not really fat at all. I just think it’s amazing how children my age are thinking about how they look at such a young age.”

She also emphasized that many of her African-American peers have low self-esteem.

“They are the ones that are insecure a lot,” she said. “There are girls at my school who are very insecure, because others tell them that they are not good enough, and they really take that to heart. The African-Americans especially take it to heart since they are always being told how people in their past weren’t good enough.”

African-American women are not the only ones who suffer from eating disorders, experts say, men—particularly African-Americans— do also. Yet, many men and boys do not seek treatment options for eating disorders because they do not want to be categorized as having a “woman’s disease.”

Dr. Barbara Kent Lawrence has researched and written two books on eating disorders titled The Hungry I: A Work Book for Partners of Men with Eating Disorders and Bitter Ice: A Memoir of Love, Food, and Obsession. From her research, she has found that boys and men — particularly African-American men — often get drawn into eating disorders through athletics.“I think that our culture is an important part of why people develop an eating disorder,” Lawrence said. “It seemed as if African-American boys and men were assumed to be immune to eating disorders, and so they weren’t being identified. So now we have a subgroup of a population that is kind of doubly penalized, and that is really too bad.”

Lawrence’s passion for understanding why men develop eating disorders came after she married a man who was secretly battling bulimia. She then decided to research eating disorders among men in order to help him. However, she could not find many books on the topic.

“It got to the point that there was increasing stress on his life and mine as well, so I decided that I needed to do something different,” Lawrence said. “I went back to school to take classes and I had the opportunity to write a book about it, and it put me in contact with a lot of professionals in the field who were very helpful.”

While writing her first book, Lawrence was shocked by what she found out about men and eating disorders.

“One of the things that shocked me was that 40 percent of the people who are bulimic in universities are male,” she revealed to theGrio. “Now that’s a very high number and when you say that people get shocked. In fact, many of those men are African-American.”

Indeed, in 2007, a study called the Prevalence of Eating Disorders among blacks in the National Survey of American Life indicated that African-American boys actually developed eating disorders, particularly bulimia, at a higher rate and at a younger age than Caribbean boys and men.

Researchers concluded that the stress and the pressure that African-Americans feel to assimilate into dominant white mainstream culture causes them to have negative self-concepts.

Lawrence believes that this trend could be increasing among African-American men: “My fear is that as African-Americans assimilate more successfully into the dominant culture, they will be under even more pressure. One of the results of that pressure is a higher increase in eating disorders.”

Experts say that as celebrities and the media consistently promote “thin as the new beautiful,” many African-Americans will stop embracing their cultural identity and bodies, and they will instead turn to eating disorders.

Dr. Sacker agreed: “African-Americans were often stereotyped as wanting to be more ‘curvy’ and less focused on body image. Over the past ten to 15 years more and more are focused on wanting to be thinner and are more focused on body image,” he said. “Whether this is due to more media attention on body image in all cultures, peer pressure, other stressors, we don’t know.”

Mental Health Advocate Terrie Williams said that many blacks may develop eating disorders for a sense of control in the white mainstream culture.

“To be a person of color in this country is to feel as if you don’t matter,” she said. “The reality is that as vulnerable human beings we are all in varying degrees dealing with unspeakable and unbearable pain, and we will do anything to not feel the real pain that we are feeling.”

Williams continued: “We self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, with food, with promiscuous unprotected sex, shop when we don’t have money, gamble, work too much, overeat, and have eating disorders. Those are the ways in which we try to not feel what we are really feeling.”

Williams stressed that African-Americans need to stop the stigmatization of seeing a therapist as a sign of weakness. Rather, they must begin to come forward and get the help that they need to heal.

“Until we give each other permission to get help and to talk to people and take it out of the closet, then we are always going to feel isolated. Though many are wearing a mask that says everything is fine, they are literally dying inside…dying. We have to share our stories with one another,” Williams said.

Covington agreed: “There is somebody in everyone’s family who has or is suffering from an eating disorder,” she said, “I think that we have to educate ourselves more. Education is going to save us and give us the permission to get help and to let go of the fantasy that we have to heal ourselves on our own.”

Covington and Lawrence also agreed that doctors need to become more informed and have less cultural bias in identifying those who suffer from eating disorders.

Additionally, dentists can note and speak with patients whose mouths may indicate signs of bulimia.

Through more conversations, awareness, and openness, it is hoped that more African-Americans and all who are suffering from eating disorders will no longer be ashamed, but instead come forward for help.

Editor’s Note: Ashley Michelle Williams was especially eager to write this article, because she also suffered from anorexia and bulimia. At first she was ashamed and embarrassed to share with the public that she also battled eating disorders. However, she has realized that through sharing her story of overcoming her eating disorders with the world, it will only help others feel liberated to come forward as well. She appreciates all who contributed to this article.

Follow Ashley Michelle Williams on Twitter @AshMWill