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How Being a Person of Color Affected the Development of My Eating Disorder

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Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

Being a person of color with a mental illness can seem like chartering into unknown waters. There are many of us, but we don’t know each other. That is because speaking about mental illness in our cultures is not always accepted. Our families may deny there is a problem or may stay silent on the topic. This makes it more difficult for us to accept that we may be struggling.

When reading articles, watching television specials or reading memoirs, I can never seem to find any of them cover someone with a mental health condition who is a person of color. As a Latina woman with a mental illness, I am reaching out to those of you who are like me. Being a person of color with a mental illness can be a little different than someone living with a mental illness who is not a person of color.

At the age of 8, I developed an eating disorder. It was 2001, and everyone I saw around me and in the media was not a person of color. Seeing images of thin white women all over television and magazines severely affected how I saw myself and contributed to the development of my eating disorder. I fought with finding my own identity and would often do everything I could to make myself more like “a white girl.” Being Latina meant I would have more curves than a Caucasian woman and according to the media, being curvy and having a darker complexion was not beautiful at that particular moment in time.

As I got older and became a teenager, I started exploring recovery books and documentaries on eating disorders. All the images I saw showed white women with an eating disorder, which made it difficult for me to relate to them. I felt utterly alone in facing my illness. My family never spoke of it so I was completely unfamiliar with what was going on with me.

I read numerous memoirs trying to find someone I could relate to, someone who might look like me, but I never found them. Because of this lack of coverage, I sought to write my own memoir on my struggle with anorexia nervosa. It is called “Being Ana: A Memoir of Anorexia Nervosa.” In my memoir, I cover the realities of what it is like growing up being different. I write about being a Latina woman with an eating disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and depression. I explore my thoughts in comparing myself to those who had lighter skin than me, who appeared less ethnic than me. I uncover what it was like to be called “ugly” by boys who disliked me because of the color of my skin.

I became so infatuated with European features and appearances that I began to despise who I was.

In my book, I recall a conversation I had with my mother about engaging in self-harm. I was around 12 years old, and I talk to her about how I hurt myself because “I hate myself.”

It went like this:

“I self-harmed, mom… I don’t know why. I’m just really sad all of the time, and angry and I hate myself.” This was the first time I had ever been straightforward with her about my emotions and my problems.

“Why do you hate yourself?” She asked, her voice shaking.

I paused for a moment before saying, “I don’t know. Because I’m ugly; because people think I’m a freak; because I’m not white.”

I felt like crying. I really did hate myself. I hated myself more than I hated anything else in the world.

My mom sighed deeply before replying, “You need to stop caring about what people think. I’ve told you this before; you are not ugly, you are not a freak; boys are stupid at this age.”

I was irritated that she didn’t comprehend the complexity of my situation. Her simple answer was not going to sway my opinion of myself. I rolled my eyes and became angry.

“You’re just saying that. You don’t understand. I hate myself. Don’t you get it? I hate everything. I’m not just saying that; I mean it. If I were white things would be different, but I’m stuck like this forever.”

Acceptance of my race and appearance was something I struggled with. I was just 12 years old during that time and had already developed a prejudice against my race and myself. All of my friends were white, all of my teachers were white and everyone on television and magazines was white. On top of it all, I could not find someone of color to whom I could relate who was struggling with any mental illness. Often, I would deny I had a problem. I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it in myself, and I didn’t see it in books or on television. If it didn’t exist in the world, then it didn’t exist in me. This pattern of thinking only worsens mental illness in people of color. We must acknowledge within our cultures that we have mental health issues; we must be willing to speak about our struggles with mental illness. We must be willing to know that it does exist. There are people like us out there.

Our experience with mental illness is a bit different than that of our white friends. We also face racism and prejudice, which in turn can cause us to develop mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. If we are willing to share our stories, we will be able to reach more people like us who are facing similar battles. There is hope in finding other people who can relate to us. We can offer each other hope. Hope is the key to healing.

Image via contributor.

Originally published: December 7, 2018
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