My Experience With Disordered Eating in the Black Community
Eating disorders can take on many different appearances. And it is important to know it isn’t always being bulimic or anorexic. Sometimes it is having an unhealthy relationship with food, being fearful of eating around others, being scared of certain food choices and people’s judgment on what you eat and how much you eat. It’s also your family continually saying something every time you have a plate in your hand. And how do I know this? Because I have had disordered eating for 30 years. And I recently learned that disordered eating runs in my family…..and that made me have all the more rage.
My problems with food began when I was little. I lived in a traditional Black household and we had most every dinner together: great, right? Wrong. In our house, your plate was fixed, you ate what was given and didn’t get up until you finished. The portions were not always the best, and we had that old school mentality of a protein, a starch and a vegetable. “Normal,” right?
Well sometimes I didn’t like what was presented or didn’t feel full, and I was always criticized. They were never any healthy conversations around food in my family. The only conversations were that I never ate when I was little, then I got put on steroids and my appetite sky-rocketed, so the conversation changed to I ate too much. And from that point I was 8 years old being put on diets and being told that food is bad and I don’t need to eat this or that. Even if it was a healthy choice I would get yelled at for eating.
I have always had this shame of eating. The sad part is none of it worked; I still was overweight and as time went on things never got any easier. And in Black families this is seen as love, and many members don’t see anything wrong with it. But that’s the problem….this is all wrong. Instead of having healthy conversations around eating, good food choices and mental health, we shove everything under the rug and just promote feelings of shame.
On the other side of all this, there are those large family gatherings, celebrations and holidays with lots of food and your plate gets piled high and you are told to eat because, well, food equals love and you have to try everything, because if not it’s rude to the person who made it. So with this mentality, how is it possible to have healthy relationships with food when you get conflicting messages about food?
Years later I found out that I am not the only family member who struggled with disordered eating. I have a cousin who also has disordered eating but in a different way. She doesn’t have weight issues but was often criticized because she was so tiny and was told she needed to eat more and “put some meat on them bones.” Classic words from Black mothers and aunties and again, they feel they are being loving, but the words cut deep. She, to this day as well, has marked difficulty eating in front of family just like I do for fear of judgment.
But time went on and finally as a college freshman I made a breakthrough! I was able to lose weight! I looked great but I traded my eating disorder for an addiction to exercise. I told myself that I could not eat anything unless I burned a certain amount of calories at the gym, and it became a very toxic relationship. I was not healthy because I was barely eating. However, all my family saw was a skinnier version of myself and that is all they cared about….go figure.
Eventually I got very sick and had to have surgery, which took me out of the gym for a while, and I slowly started eating normally again. I gained weight and all the feelings came back, as well as the criticism. This lasted for about 10 years until I started losing weight again. But then that addiction to exercise came back and I stopped eating. My weight fell off and I would only eat once a day. I was obsessed with calories. Again, my family didn’t care because all they saw was a skinny Jae. That’s all that mattered.
But then my health started to decline. I wasn’t able to go to the gym because I felt so much pain and nausea. And then the medication changes came and the weight piled on. And cue the criticism……every day for the past five years all I have heard is “you are eating too much” or “you really need to exercise more.” When the reality is I barely eat because of my health, and I can’t exercise due to my health issues. But in my family, none of that matters. They just want a perfect picture.
And that perfect picture is the problem with many Black families. It is very detrimental to mental health, evokes a trauma response and does not allow for healthy conversations or for anyone to heal and have healthy relationships with anybody or anything. The cultural norms in the African American community around food and appearance are hurting us, and we need to be open and honest about how eating disorders are more common than not. We need to be more open with how it affects our mental health and how it affects our day to day lives.
Now, after 30 years of struggling, I finally have been able to discuss my experiences and feelings with my family, but it hasn’t been easy. Every day is a battle to maintain a healthy calorie count, balance meals and be a regular person. And even though I have been working on my healing, that doesn’t mean my family has owned their part and that they are supportive and working to make things easier. That is something that I have had to accept. However, it is my prayer that one day not only will I continue to have a healthy relationship with food in my own home, but a healthy relationship with food and family, and be able to have healthy and healing conversations about how their actions contributed to my disordered eating.
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