My bulimia was almost perfectly invisible. Over the course of my nearly 10-year struggle with disordered eating, I can count on one hand the number of people who knew. It is the height of irony that my fat black body permitted me to camouflage. The intersection of racism, sexism and fatphobia usually means that bodies like mine are subject to intense scrutiny as targets for derision, policing and other forms of violence. But in this particular case, my body provided a form of concealment. I didn’t look like what girls with eating disorders are ‘supposed’ to look like. Eating disorders are for white girls. This is what I was made to believe, and this is what allowed me to hide.
Growing up, I cannot recall a single television show, movie or news program showcasing eating disorders that highlighted nonwhite, larger bodies. It was as if they – and I – did not exist. The lack of media representation reinforced my household’s traditional black Caribbean belief that these things simply didn’t happen to us. Eating disorders were literally a foreign concept. On the few occasions when the subject arose, it was summarily dismissed, and usually with a laugh. The joke was: Only white American girls can afford to reject food.
The lack of media representation reinforced my household’s traditional black Caribbean belief that these things simply didn’t happen to us.
This is, of course, untrue. Like all forms of mental illness, eating disorders are not bound by race, gender or class. But as the concept of an eating disorder was untranslatable to my body, my telltale signs of bulimia went unnoticed. The meticulous and detailed notes on what I ate alongside so-called thinspiration photos -– primarily images of impossibly skinny, impossibly white celebrities – were largely unquestioned. Behaviors that would have been cause for alarm if located on a small white frame did not warrant intervention on a large, black one.
Black beauty standards are traditionally more embracive of bigger women’s bodies than the metrics espoused by white media. But boundaries still exist, and deviation from the norm is still punished. In 1992 we said “little in the middle but she got much back.” Today we say “slim thick.” While the language has shifted, the directive to Black women has not: you can be big, if your curves are in the right places. As I slowly began to recover and come to terms with my body, I still sometimes struggled with this ideal. For me, it was unattainable. I appreciated my large breasts and butt but was frustrated that I could not have them without the accompanying stomach.
Like all forms of mental illness, eating disorders are not bound by race, gender or class.
To my chagrin, the occasional family member and friend also articulated frustration with my body. It was at this point that I realized my body had the capacity to cause anger, and that some people preferred me bulimic. Harkening back to the throes of my restrictive eating, over-exercising and psychological turmoil, one asked me directly why I looked the way that I do now, adding “Didn’t you used to care? Why did you stop?” An old roommate bemoaned my loss of commitment to a slightly smaller frame and offered a forceful, albeit ignorant, indictment: “Men just can’t be attracted to fat black women.” For the record, this is untrue. But because I am a thick black woman (not slim thick, thick thick), my body was identified as the problem while my disorder was not. Instead, my harmful practices were tacitly encouraged, and praised as caring about my appearance.
It is not ‘care’ that drives bulimia. I cannot say I was animated by a benign, if superficial, concern for my looks. It was shame that pushed me into the bathroom as a 15- or 16-year-old, crying and for the first time attempting to force the food I just ate to leave my body. I was guilty because I was convinced that my size reflected my value, and every pound indicated a moral failing. After years of successful societal indoctrination and hurtful, snide remarks, I had come to believe that it was my body, not my soul, that announced to the world my worth as a person. I thought my weight was the determinative factor in whether I was worthy of respect, desire and love; and as a young black girl, I was desperate to gain control over those emotions. I was desperate to receive. I was desperate.
By my early teens I had yet to learn that some people, myself included, would come to love me and my body no matter what. I knew but had not yet accepted that others would hate me and my body no matter what. I had not yet grappled with how women’s bodies are treated as items for public consumption and criticism, and had only minimally engaged with how people who have never loved nor respected black bodies have always sought to control them. My bulimia arose out of the confluence of these factors and thus reproduced their systems of power and control. The rules of white supremacist patriarchy dictate that black women’s bodies are intrinsically unacceptable. In my efforts to reshape my body so as to gain acceptance, I became less of myself, and my body became less my own. I had to fight to take my body back.
This fight was made all the more challenging because our society, and the black community in particular, regards both mental illness and its treatment with contempt. When confronted with mental and emotional instability, our discomfort leads us to avoid and suppress rather than ask and address. As I was initially unwilling to truly commit to formal recovery channels, I mostly overcame my disorder alone. I reclaimed my body by forcing myself to read constantly about healthy relationships with food. I worked daily on my self-image while reminding myself of all the things it is more important to be than thin. And I regularly sought out images of black women at all sizes, hoping that my ability to see their beauty would turn into a recognition of beauty in myself. This was, by necessity, a medicine of my own devising because big black women are not included in media and discourse about eating disorders. But I knew that if my recovery was going to last, it needed to be intersectional.
At every stage of my eating disorder ― both slipping into it and clawing myself out ― the existence of both Blackness and fatness was unaccounted for. The silence spoke volumes about what assumptions we make regarding big, Black bodies; who we ascribe value to; and who we deem worthy of protection. It is not true that only skinny white girls suffer from eating disorders. Lies like these suppress the ability of vulnerable populations to access the services and resources they need. They tell the sufferer they are alone. This too is untrue.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.