I was 17 when I decided I wanted to take control of my weight, and like every single weight-loss-related piece of information will insist, it requires a lifestyle change. For a long time, I considered the way I completely avoided entire food groups, severely restricted my daily calories to around 1,000 a day, and my hours-long, six-days-a-week HIIT workouts, to be the aforementioned lifestyle change.
I think everyone understood my initial desire to lose weight (as I was ostensibly overweight), but not my desire to want to be skinny—and skinny was what I so desperately wanted to be. I wanted no parts of those curves that women like me were supposed to embrace. I was a Black girl that wanted to see hip bones rather than hips.
Which is the whole problem, right? As a Black girl growing up, having some meat on your bones was a good thing. Our community values curves. We’re tacitly taught that we should be desirous of a thicker body, and there are many complex, historical, and cultural reasons for this. This is why the idea of a Black girl wanting to be thin seems absurd, and having an eating disorder even more so. In fact, per NEDA, when it comes to eating disorders, Black women are under-diagnosed and under-treated when compared to their white counterparts. Unfortunately, according to VeryWell Mind, studies have shown that medical professionals are simply less likely to diagnose BIPOC with an eating disorder, even if they have the same kinds of symptoms as a white person who is diagnosed with one.
Studies have shown that medical professionals are simply less likely to diagnose BIPOC with an eating disorder, even if they have the same kinds of symptoms as a white person who is diagnosed with one.
This might be why it took me so long to understand that having such severe anxiety about food wasn’t just part of my new, “healthy” lifestyle, and it actually wasn’t OK that I couldn’t eat something without googling the calories (and this was almost a decade ago, so imagine trying to look up the nutritional facts of Chipotle’s fajita vegetables on my Blackberry Storm!).
Years later, my relationship with food is much improved, though I am still a work in progress. And to be clear, I am in no way offering any medical advice. If you feel like you might be struggling with an eating disorder or you are concerned about your relationship with food, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional.
That said, as Black people, we navigate a unique cultural landscape that impacts the way we look at our bodies and food. This kind of discourse is often absent when we talk about eating disorders or unhealthy relationships with food. And while I’ll be thrilled if this message resonates with a broad spectrum of people, I really hope that this article helps a Black girl like me feel a little bit more seen.
Ignore cultural myths about being a Black girl
The world has placed Black girls in a box, complete with a laundry list of things supposedly we do and don’t do. And to varying extents, we’ve internalized it as well. I think having a better understanding of this would have been the difference between unsuccessfully telling myself that I needed to stop acting like a white girl and acknowledging that I was going through something that required professional help. I don’t want to frame it as though it’s empowering to assert that Black girls do experience eating disorders, because it’s far from—but thinking that you are immune from a condition because it seemingly “just doesn’t happen” in your community is problematic.
I think, intuitively, we know that we are complex; I don’t know a single Black woman that lives up to the caricatured stereotype of what we are supposedly like. But we need to remind ourselves of our nuance every time that voice in our head tries to box us in. That’s when we’ll start viewing ourselves as full human beings who have the capacity for the entire range of human experience.
Don’t lose your culture in your quest to lose weight
I’m from the Caribbean, and food is a huge part of our culture. We love any excuse to cook a huge meal, stock the bar, and have a good time. Caribbean food is a lot of rice and peas, fried fish, barbecued pork, curry goat, fried plantain, and so on. All delicious, but not necessarily the most healthy if they’re prepared traditionally, and I believe that across the African diaspora, you’ll find similar foods and methods of preparation.
The thing about an eating disorder is that it will have you terrified of the foods that you’ve grown up with, and by extension, a part of you as well. I’m not trying to say you are what you eat or that entire cultures are defined by foods, but I do think that, especially for People of Color, our foods hold a certain cultural, historical, and emotional weight. I think back to my college days, juggling the trauma and mental stress of living in a foreign country (and the accompanying micro-aggressions and culture shock), all the while depriving myself of the foods that would’ve made me feel closer to home. Don’t do your soul a disservice by suffocating a part of it.
You are responsible for how you present yourself to the world, but not the world’s perception
I think that sometimes as Black women, we are so used to having every single bit of us scrutinized: our hair, our skin tone, our behavior, our tone of voice, “If I do X, how will it look? What impression will I give?”
We spend a lot of time policing ourselves, because we know if we don’t someone else will. I totally get it; it’s something I’m very guilty of myself. It was (is) pretty difficult for me to even write this because I’m so anxious about the way I’ll be perceived. There’ve been times that I’ve randomly gone on my Instagram profile and tried to look at it through the eyes of a stranger (please let me know if you’ve done this too, by the way, so I don’t feel totally alone!). I want us to collectively unlearn all of that. Viewing your appearance, your body, or your life through the gaze of others will leave you unhappy and sick. It is your birthright to show up in this life the way you choose; life will become a little lighter once you start owning that. Consistently and relentlessly ask yourself, “Who am I doing this for?”
I’m not trying to say you are what you eat or that entire cultures are defined by foods, but I do think that, especially for People of Color, our foods hold a certain cultural, historical, and emotional weight.
Your looks will never bring lasting contentment
When you embark on a weight loss journey, you expect that it will transform your life—you’ll be prettier, happier, healthier, and skinnier. Some of us unfortunately end up on a slippery slope thinking, “only a few more pounds, then I’ll be good for sure.” Your goal weight keeps getting lower and lower, you are getting thinner and thinner, and somehow you’re still not happy… what gives?
The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we can achieve lasting happiness from the way we look. I’ve experienced my body in a vast range of sizes and shapes. I’ve been thin, I’ve been fat, and I’ve been equally dissatisfied either way. Weight loss is not a cure-all, and being skinny won’t make you happy, no matter what society would have you believe. As I try to lose my quarantine weight this year, I’ve been actively trying to keep that in mind. I want to be happy with my body at every stage of this journey, rather than expecting happiness to suddenly emerge at the ‘end.’
Don’t just cut the branches—uproot
I was 21 spending a semester abroad in London with a group of amazing girls who were equally eager to soak up all that Europe had to offer. We ran through all our money (I had like $33 to my name on the flight home), finding the cheapest ways to experience the most amazing things. Suddenly, the idea of leaving Paris without trying an authentic crepe or Amsterdam without, ahem, splitting a space cake seemed so absurd, I didn’t care about being skinny. I ate, I laughed, I lived, so obviously I thought, boom, I’m cured—that was easy! Looking back now, I can see that though it was a tiny step in the right direction, it definitely wasn’t a cure.
You see, while losing yourself fully in an experience can help put things into perspective, if you don’t do the work to actually deal with those unhealthy behaviors, you can slip back into them. As Black women, we are used to doing work on our own, so much so that getting help— any kind of help— feels uncomfortable. Several years later, I’m a long way from where I was, but about a year ago, I realized that though I may have cut the branches, I didn’t uproot the unhealthy behaviors. I tried working with a nutritionist, and in the spirit of full transparency, that experience didn’t quite work for me. But recently I’ve started working with a personal trainer and that process is in fact helping me rethink the way I look at my body and food. When it comes down to it, you basically have to find what works for you, but to truly heal, you have to confront what got you there in the first place.
For further reading or resources, check out the below links
The National Eating Disorders Association
What You Need to Know About Eating Disorders
Yes, Black Women Struggle With Eating Disorders Too
It’s Time to Correct the Narrative Surrounding Black Girls and Eating Disorders
If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.