My Family Shamed Me About My Relationship With Food
The topic of eating disorders in the Black community has been taboo for too long
“I have to ask, do you really think if you eat that, you will lose weight?”
I looked up to see my father fixated on my position. “Well?” He asked again, voice inflected in the way it does when he is becoming impatient for a response.
I looked down at my plate of rice, vegetables, and turkey, its color palette, size, and composition identical to those around me. My siblings, by my side, are cowering from the tension. Silence slinks in like an unwelcome guest and makes a nest.
Ever since I was young I have always been told I should lose weight, my parents even going to extremes such as letting everyone but me order dessert when eating out. They would eat theirs while I sat and watched.
My weight issues were free rein amongst visitors and family members, so much so that I could stand by them and hear laughter followed by comments such as “aka simba.” Translation being: “She’s fat/bigger.”
There was lecture after lecture from them on my health, though all mealtimes were communal so we were all eating the same food — bread and eggs, rice and chicken, sadza and stew, etc. When I would attempt to clean up my diet or exercise, I would get lectured again, this time on my obsession with diets and health. My weight issues were free rein amongst visitors and family members, so much so that I could stand by them and hear laughter followed by comments such as “aka simba.” Translation being: “She’s fat/bigger.”
I remember trips to the seaside in Scarborough, where my siblings could splurge on ice cream, donuts, and fish and chips, while I was only allowed to pick one of those things. There were also times in my childhood when I would be applauded for not eating.
Looking at my earlier pictures is always confusing and upsetting due to how small I appear, especially in comparison to how I am now — I am noticeably a few sizes bigger (from a UK size 10 to a 14/16 today), my face is chubbier and less defined, and my chest (though I have always been top-heavy) is considerably larger. I always wonder, what was the big issue with how I looked back then?
Nowadays, I have a massive problem with binge eating, exacerbated by my borderline personality disorder. To my mind, eating three meals a day feels excessive, and if/when I do, I often feel compelled to purge. But I have only recently started to recognize my eating habits as a symptom of a wider issue. I never thought I had an eating disorder because I am not thin and, as a Black woman, I was under the impression that it was something that didn’t happen to us. However, upon researching the topic, I found that this simply isn’t true.
A 2009 study found that Black girls are 50% more likely to be bulimic than White girls. Even more shocking was that girls in the lowest income bracket were 153% more likely to be bulimic than girls from the highest. Yet, the eating disorder nonprofit Beat conducted a survey and found that, much like myself, 39% of people believed eating disorders were more prevalent in White people versus other ethnicities — showing just how extreme the difference between public perception and clinical research is.
The survey also found that BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) people feel less confident in seeking help from health professionals due to those very eating disorder stereotypes. But it is no wonder why, when television shows and movies such as; Skins, To The Bone, Overshadowed, and Girl, Interrupted present this narrative that these illnesses are exclusive to White women.
I never thought I had an eating disorder because I am not thin and, as a Black woman, I was under the impression that it was something that didn’t happen to us.
When we do go to get help, we are less likely to get diagnosed, due to race-based stereotypes held by clinicians relating to our socioeconomic status and different perspectives on acceptable body shapes and sizes. Too often, leading researchers believe we are immune to eating disorders due to being more satisfied with our appearance, compared to White people.
Though untrue, this sentiment is exactly why data pertaining to Black women and eating disorders is extremely limited — we are being excluded from research because of it.
This led me to question my situation. Even if I had gone to the doctor, would I have been diagnosed? Or would I have been ushered away and told, “Sometimes people stop eating.”
After all, getting a diagnosis for my other mental health issues was an exercise in patience, restraint, and navigating bias — my first doctor prescribed my issues as “hormonal” (I had just turned 23). You don’t need to look far on social media before finding stories of health care professionals not taking us or our pain seriously. Or how medical students (soon to be qualified doctors) still hold incorrect and racist biological information about our bodies. Black women are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth — the problem so great, that even Serena Williams is speaking out, drawing parallels to her own complicated labor.
There is this world view that Black women, in particular, are indestructible. But the fact is that we live our lives at an intersection of identities that increases our risk of death. All these elements combined will, and are, only exacerbating the problem, making this an urgent issue we need to address in our community.
The most frustrating thing about the whole conversation is how everything we know about obesity, is laced with White supremacy. The body mass index (BMI), for example, is heavily affected by racial bias — due to it being developed using only White participants — yet it is still used to this day.
In her book, Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia author Sabrina Strings outlines this, explaining how racial discourse was deployed by White Americans and Europeans to create social distinctions between themselves and the “greedy, fat racial others.” I soon came to realize that I had seen demonstrations of this in my own family, after meeting relative after relative who looked just like me. If you were to put me in a room with all my female family members, you would find that I am no black sheep; the majority of us are just bigger built.
Even though my parents know this, my whole life I have been told that I am too big and the blame is solely on me.
The evening my father asked me, “I have to ask, do you really think if you eat that, you will lose weight?” I hadn’t yet eaten that day. But that evening, even though I knew it was important to finish my meal, I wasn’t able to.
I wished at that moment that I could have explained the effects of their shaming on my life. During the peak of my depression, I was too exhausted to cook so I would constantly order takeout and that was the reason for my considerable weight gain. After attempting, in one month, to lose the 20 kg I had gained in a year, I freaked out and began purging again. But as a defensive measure to stop, I had also begun limiting my meals to one per day. I wished I could have explained how his lectures didn’t inspire me to alter my diet but only furthered my broken relationship with food. I could have outlined that maybe my diet isn’t the issue.
But I didn’t. Out of fear of having the conversation shut down, being unsupported, not believed or taken seriously.
It is up to us to shed light and bring awareness to the prevalence of eating disorders in the Black community, especially when research shows the medical community is unlikely to offer help, realizing the White supremacist roots tied to all discussions of weight. We also need to be aware of the damage and disorders we pass down our families like heirlooms, opening up the discussion to include men, seeing as there is little to no data that includes them.
But most importantly, we need to talk.