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Why We Need to Prioritize Diverse Voices in the Eating Disorder Community

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Casey Chon, The Mighty’s editorial intern, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

If you live with an eating disorder or with disordered eating and are active on social media, you’ve likely encountered the sphere of professionals, treatment centers, advocates and activists that exist on these social channels.

I’ve been active in this sphere for over two years and have come to realize that the stories promoted are often quite similar. They are mostly white women who have overcome anorexia and bulimia, and their stories are privileged over others — such as people of color, people with eating disorders that are not bulimia or anorexia, and men, to name a few.

It’s not that people of color and other marginalized groups are not writing their stories. Because they are. There are activists everywhere speaking up about their eating disorder experiences, recovery and mental health in general.

For example, I’m Korean-American and all of my work centers on diversity and inclusion. I worked for a nonprofit that helps people recover from eating disorders for two years, and experienced the effects of white privilege every single day. I began looking around and realized that my experience with this nonprofit wasn’t an outlier, it was happening everywhere to people with experiences that weren’t the stereotypical eating disorder experience.

Eating disorders do not discriminate by race, gender, sexual identity, religion, class, ethnicity, geographic location, age or any other identifier. If eating disorders affect everyone, and if people are always touting this fact on social media, why do the stories that get shared focus on white people and what they are doing?

Finding stories and people that center voices less commonly heard is not difficult. Last week, Chella Man, a queer, deaf, and genderqueer artist wrote about his experiences with binge eating disorder under the title “Man-Made, My Eating Disorder Is Invisible – But It’s Still Valid.” On the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) blog, Shalini Wickramatilake wrote a post titled “What’s Left Unspoken: Sri Lankan Culture and Eating Disorders.” There is even a list from Three Birds Counseling titled “Diversity Is A Good Thing: 80+ Eating Disorder & Body Image Providers and Activists.” On Instagram, @Gems_of_amber uses her platform to talk about diabulimia, the eating disorder where someone with diabetes purposefully restricts insulin to lose weight.

This privileging of “stereotypical” stories has clinical and historical roots. According to NEDA:

When presented with identical case studies demonstrating disordered eating symptoms in white, Hispanic, and Black women, clinicians were asked to identify if the woman’s eating behavior was problematic. 44 percent identified the white woman’s behavior as problematic; 41 percent identified the Hispanic woman’s behavior as problematic, and only 17 percent identified the Black woman’s behavior as problematic. The clinicians were also less likely to recommend that the Black woman should receive professional help (Gordon, Brattole, Wingate, & Joiner, 2006).

When you look at media representation of eating disorders and you see the most prominent activists, the fact that they are all white can dissuade people of color and other marginalized groups from getting help. Although someone may be experiencing eating disorder-related behavior, because they only see white people represented in this context, they might think something else is wrong with them.

Eating disorder professionals, advocates, activists, and treatment centers need to shatter the current mold in order for the eating disorder community to truly become more diverse and inclusive. The tokenization of different experiences needs to stop and different experiences need to be incorporated into the mainstream. Educate yourself to understand what marginalized groups are experiencing and magnify the voices of those not being heard.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. People die because of eating disorders. Eating disorders don’t discriminate, and that is why it is so important to have more diverse and inclusive representation.

Originally published: April 26, 2018
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