My disordered eating all started in a very simple, innocent way. When I was in elementary school, I was a picky eater. I became underweight and my parents kept me at the dinner table for what felt like forever in order to make sure I finished my food.
People then commented about my small size, but I never took the comments to be negative.
“Oh, she is so skinny! I was never that skinny!” family members would say with a little bit of jealousy or awe in their voice.
“Oh she eats like a bird!” they would say and I thought this was a positive thing. Birds are cute right?
In high school I internalized all of these “positive” comments until they transformed into something ugly. It transformed into a fear of becoming fat. Being the tiny, bird-like eater became such a big part of my identity that I feared letting everyone down by becoming a shapely woman.
Back in high school, I played junior varsity soccer. I loved the sport itself, but it furthered my obsession with weight. At this point I was still underweight. On a visit to my doctor I remember distinctly being told that 120 lbs was my “healthy weight.” I wish my doctor never told me this. To this day, every time I step on the scale this number will haunt me and tell me whether I’m failing or succeeding to be healthy. Of course in my mind, coming in under 120 didn’t mean I was failing at anything. It meant I was overachieving!
I would run on a treadmill for hours on end to stay skinny. I distinctly remember watching an entire marathon of "America’s Next Top Model" and not stopping a beat on the treadmill. When I was done I was so proud of myself.
Focusing on fitness isn’t a bad thing, but when you are doing all this activity you need nourishment. I viewed calories as the enemy however, and would regularly skip meals.
My mom caught on to what I was doing and would ask what I had eaten each day. Each time I would answer truthfully as a silent call for help. “I don’t want to have hunger pains. I don’t want to have headaches. All I want is an admirable tiny frame. Help!”
I knew what an eating disorder was at this time. One of my best friends in high school was pretty vocal about her bulimia. She was also white. Although I tried to be supportive of her I never spoke up about what I was going through. I thought that what I was doing was different from her because I wasn’t throwing up my meals and seeing blood in the toilet. I was being healthier! I wasn’t going to end up in a hospital if I kept going. But I wasn’t being healthy, and my mom noticed.
One day I went to the movies with her and she asked me once again what I have eaten that day. When I answered truthfully again with some subconscious hope of being stopped she said something that will always stay with me.
“Black girls don’t have eating disorders.”
As she said the words she was looking at the screen in front of us. Everything about it was dismissive.
It was the first time someone finally labeled my actions what they were -- an eating disorder. But in the same breath, these words were denying my hurt because of the color of my skin. It was also accusing me of trying to be like my white friends. which was a constant accusation in my household.
Nothing more was really done to address the situation, but after high school I went to college and slowly but surely, I replaced my identity of “skinny” with “writer." Without organized sports, it was harder for me to focus on fitness.
I thought that I was all fixed without intervention until I dared to step on a scale for the first time in years. I felt ashamed of the number I saw and questioned how I could have gotten so off track. I decided to work out, but also focus on eating healthy rather than skipping meals.
For three months, I was doing great, but sure enough I was weighing myself constantly. I kept telling myself that putting pressure on myself to lose anything more than a pound a week is unhealthy, but a small voice in my head didn’t care.
I was working out in order to fit a dress I wanted to wear for my anniversary. My goal was to be tiny like the model on the website by October.
By October, I lost 20 pounds which made me feel proud and excited. The week of my anniversary came, but I was indulgent while on vacation. I was away from a scale and my workout clothes. When the night of my anniversary was approaching even closer a voice in my head started saying “You should stop eating then you’ll be fine.”
I wore my dress and was sickened by my pictures. My belly was bloated from a week of delicious food after months of hard work. Part of me resents that I spent all that time trying to do things the healthy way when it failed me. Skipping meals is just so much easier.
“Black girls don’t have eating disorders.”
My initial reaction to these words was anger at the thoughtlessness it took to say those words to your kid who is obviously struggling. But then I learned as time went on that the problem was much bigger than my mother.
“Positive” stereotypes hide in compliments. Asians are smart. How can that stereotype hurt anyone? Black women are strong. Who doesn’t want to be seen as strong, especially someone who identifies as a feminist?
My mother lost her mom when she was 14 and didn’t have a father that she could rely on. She did have three brothers to steer her in the right direction, but she still had to find a way to get to college and finish. Then she had to find a way to be the sole provider for me when it didn’t look like my father could fill that role.
There is no doubt that my mom is a strong black woman. Strong black women don’t show weakness. There isn’t a script saying black women can have eating disorders in this society. We eat unapologetically! We have voluptuous bodies like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, and we love those bodies no matter what white society says.
Black girls don’t have eating disorders. Until we do. Black girls become strong black women! Until, sometimes, we aren't. And what happens then?