As I stepped from the podium, a young Black woman approached. "Thank you so much for helping me to remember that I'm not alone." Her words shook me to my core. Twenty years ago I had been her, desperate to feel a connection to someone as I struggled with an eating disorder. I was the odd chocolate in a sea of vanilla constantly reminded by statistical information and memoirs that I didn't belong.
Years earlier, Oprah, the Queen of talk television, addressed a Black woman on her couch, "I never met a Black person who was anorexic. You're the first one in twenty-one years of doing television." She seemed stunned. This was the Queen of all things female. Her words shamed me and unintentionally shoved ethnic women further into their closets. She wasn't alone. I'd heard those same words uttered from professionals, friends, strangers and they never failed to wound or remind me that I was not normal.
Today, two resent studies are challenging the prevalent beliefs regarding Blacks and eating disorders. In 2009, USC published a study that found African-American girls were 50 percent more likely than their white counterparts to be bulimic. Using data from a 10-year survey of more than 2,300 girls from the lowest income bracket in schools in California, Ohio and Washington, D.C, Economist Michelle Goeree, John Ham and Daniela Iorio found the following:
Black girls scored an average of 17 percentage points higher than their white counterparts on the widely-used medical gauging of the severity of the bulimia. Girls from families in the lowest income bracket were significantly more likely to experience bulimia than their wealthier peers.
For girls whose parents had a high school education or less, the rate of bulimia was more than double -- 3.3 percent were bulimic.
Similar to the USC study, The National Survey of American Life conducted a comprehensive nationwide study of African American and Caribbean Blacks. They interviewed adults and children (over 6,300) and found lifetime prevalence rates for Bulimia is 1.5 percent for adults, which is slightly higher than the national average of 1.0 percent.
Being Black had prepared me for an eating disorder. Bulimia is a closeted disease, usually practiced in secret, in silence, in isolation. At the height of my descent into the hell of an eating disorder, my entire world spiraling out of control, no one guessed I was spending my day's bingeing and praying to the porcelain goddess in private. Growing up, secrets were the glue that bonded together my community. We were taught to protect things that went on behind closed doors and deny things that were shameful. There was a constant reminder, "Black people don't do that." When Wayne Williams was captured and accused of being the Atlanta Child Murderer, the chant in my community was overwhelming, "The cops are mistaken. Black people don't do that." Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson were acquitted in the court of our community long before the juries handed down their verdicts. We were supposed to be immune from the behaviors of our white counterparts. For a long time I refused to admit that I didn't know how to eat. That was strictly a white girl issue.
As a child my mother explained my harsh realities, "You're poor, you're Black, and you're a woman. You've got three strikes against you so don't expect life to be easy. But she was wrong. My dark chocolate colored coating protected me from suspicion, judgment and the intervention I desperately needed. When I finally sought out mental health support my family was mortified. I had broken the one sacred covenant. Church was offered up as the only acceptable alternative. I had revealed my deepest secrets to strangers who did not look like me. I had relinquished my role as the strong Black woman archetype. Why couldn't I suffer in silence? Or have more self-control? There was so much I needed to learn about my relationship with food. Instead of celebration and ceremony it became a weapon I used to shove down my shame and loathing. It took a long time to learn that I could not heal my relationship to food on my own. There was no diet that would work for me.
When I wrote my memoir chronicling my struggle with bulimia, Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, I was excommunicated for spilling family secrets even though they were mine. A relative who weighs close to four hundred pounds and has health issues because of it went on a rampage, insisting that she had enjoyed a happy childhood and I was simply over dramatizing my experience.
Years ago while researching a book, I sat down with a group of 10th grade girls in South Central Los Angeles. Four girls were Black, five were Latino and one was Asian. After I revealed my past experience with bulimia two Black and two Latino girls shared their struggles with anorexia and bulimia. They were alone, afraid to burden their already overwhelmed families. When I shared my journey to recovery it was the first time they had heard of a woman of color admitting to having an eating disorder. They were the reason I wrote my book.
Today I am fully recovered from anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating and exercising. I do not say this lightly, but with pride and humility. The journey has been painful and has taken work, commitment and support. I could not have done it alone. It is still a daily commitment. Because of my book, website, work with the National Eating Disorders Association and speaking engagements I receive daily emails from women who are struggling to reach out for help. Until we can accept that eating disorders affect us all we are shoving the door closed on those of other races, ages or genders who need help. We still need people like Oprah to come forward and to help make us visible. Because when she talks, people listen.
Follow Stephanie Covington Armstrong on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StepCArmstrong