“Black people don’t have eating disorders.” As I sat in the dinning hall at my college, listening to my roommate make this remark, I blankly watched the vegetables on my plate transform from a divine, earthly food into capsules of poison that I had to get out of my body.
Hunched over the toilet, I heard a voice tell me, “See, there’s nothing wrong with throwing up your vegetables. You’re Black; you can’t have an eating disorder.” On October 28, 2010, I was admitted for the fourth time into an inpatient, residential treatment center for eating disorders.
I remember the first time I decided my body was too big for me. I was sitting down on a chair doing some mindless activity when I glanced down at my thighs, spread out on the seat beneath me. For some reason, I could not remove my eyes from this sight; it was as if my mind had instantaneously become consumed with disgust and fascination. After poking and squeezing them for some time, I said aloud to myself: “If my thighs were half the size they are now, I would be so much happier.” At the age of 10, I inscribed my first goal weight into my journal.
Though I had an ideal weight in mind beginning at the age of 10, it wasn’t until 3 years later that the full-fledged eating disorder bore its ugly head. By the time I turned 15, I was preparing plates of food for dinner, throwing the food outside into the bushes of our garden and washing the plates as if I finished an entire meal. I found hiding spots all over my house to trick my family into thinking I’d eaten the food I took from the kitchen, convinced that my behaviors could go by unnoticed. I only let myself eat up to 300 calories a day. And it was my little secret.
For a while, it stayed my little secret. Yes, people noticed my weight loss, but I received praise instead of worry, which only fueled the burning desire of my good friend, Anorexia. It wasn’t until my older brother, who had recently left for college, came home for winter break, that my weight loss was finally called to attention in a negative manner. Due to my brother’s concern, I began seeing a therapist, a nutritionist, and taking weekly trips to my pediatrician for my vitals and weight to be checked. Despite the added support, I continued to restrict my intake and lost even more weight. At 16, I entered inpatient treatment for the first time.
I spent three months at Remuda Ranch Center for Anorexia and Bulimia. In a way, I sort of floated through the program; I had no intention of giving up my eating disorder, I knew I would lose all the weight I gained immediately upon discharging. Lo and behold, on the plane ride home from Arizona I threw away lunch, my first meal out of treatment.
The next few years of my life crept by in a blur. Due to my extended absence from school, I decided to repeat my junior year of high school. I desperately longed to have the conventional life of a teenager, but found myself struggling to simply stay alive. My eating disorder had morphed from a purely restrictive diet into a disease of restricting, over exercising, and purging, new habits I had picked up during my first venture inpatient. Its growth prohibited me from obtaining the fresh start I had hoped for initially when I’d decided to try an extra year of high school. Saddened by my inability to have the experience I desired, my eating disorder latched on even tighter. I was threatened countless times by doctors to be put back into inpatient treatment, but somehow my eating disorder and I managed to stay afloat just long enough to graduate high school.
At 19, I moved to Los Angeles from my home of San Francisco in a new attempt at leaving my past behind. Sure enough, the eating disorder would not let me forget. I visited home for Thanksgiving, expecting to spend a short two weeks with family, and found myself lying in a hospital bed at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. My weight had plummeted to an all time low and my body was paying for the neglect it had received for so long. From the hospital, I was admitted into The Center for Change in Utah where I spent a month before transferring to Monte Nido Treatment Center. I stayed at Monte Nido for two months and went to The Eating Disorder Center of California upon discharge.
After my time at Monte Nido, my life finally seemed to be headed in the right direction. I remember having a feeling of strength and determination in regards to my recovery, but somehow those feelings were short lived. I retreated back to the life that was most familiar to me, a life of self-hatred, missing confidence, and immense fear of the unknown. It took two years for me to realize that I was fighting an uphill battle with slingshots against guns. I was drowning, once again struggling to simply stay alive. At the age of 21, I admitted myself once again to Monte Nido Treatment Center.
At the beginning of my experiences in treatment centers, I remember feeling extremely different and out of place due to the color of my skin.
How could I feel so odd in an environment where everyone was struggling with the same disorder as me? Is it true that African American’s can’t develop eating disorders; that we are suppose to love and praise the curves of our figures at all times? If this is true, then the disgust I’ve had towards my body signifies that I am even an outsider of my own community. The displacement I felt inside treatment and the alienation I felt outside of treatment created a great deal of confusion and embarrassment for me in my younger years. It is challenging enough to acknowledge the existence of an eating disorder without the added racial stereotype constantly convincing you that, “You can’t have an eating disorder.”
Despite the absence of like-bodied people through the course of my treatment, I eventually let go of the differences I felt. I focused more on the similarities I had with my fellow treatment seekers and from this, realized that an eating disorder can (and does) manifest itself in a wide variety of individuals. This is a disease that knows no age, sex, gender, or race. Unfortunately, no one is immune to the possible torture eating disorders inflict into one’s life; its deathly wrath is searching for anyone who will listen.
My hope is to catch people before they hear the lies of an eating disorder, before they are told their disease can’t be real because of the color of their skin. I know that since I, one Black woman, was lured in by the false promises of Anorexia, many more people of color have been too. Yet, why does it continue to go undiscussed in our community?
I want to be the reason for the start of this discussion. I want to use my past confusions and struggles to let those experiencing similar feelings know they are not alone; they are not too different to seek help. As more people of color struggling with eating disorders come forth, the embarrassment and denial will begin to dissolve and the desire to recover will take its place. If we band together, support each other, and raise awareness, we can save ourselves.