While eating disorders have long been considered a predominately “white woman” problem, recent findings show that eating disorders are becoming a major health issue for black women. In fact, binge eating occurs at higher rates in the black populations than white ones. Black women also binge more frequently than white women according to a recent study of two populations of white and black women. Obesity is also rising at an alarmingly fast rate for this group. Over the last 35 years, black women have reported rates of obesity prevalence at twice the rate of white women, and black and white males.
In a recent article, Stephanie Covington Armstrong, a playwright, screenwriter and the shared her battle with emotional eating. According to Armstrong, a breakup with her first boyfriend triggered past childhood trauma of sexual abuse. This brought on extreme yo-yo dieting and later anorexia and bulimia. When her anorexia was at its worst, she starved herself for weeks. During her bulimic stage, after stuffing down large quantities of food, Armstrong used laxatives and exercises to try and combat the calories. She kept her struggle hidden for three years before being confronted by her sister, with whom she shared a home.
With such alarming statistics and findings, why do eating disorders go undetected and/or untreated in the black female population?
Although Armstrong’s experience is consistent with research in that binge-eating or emotional overeating is often used as a way to cope with difficult emotions triggered by past trauma, like childhood mistreatment, the medical field rarely assumes that eating disorders are a problem for black women. Additionally, there are several other factors that affect black women in terms of trauma and coping that may be overlooked or disregarded but have an undeniable effect on their health.
Rising Rates in Obesity, Binge Eating, and Depression
The Undercurrent of Racism
In a study conducted in 2008, researchers found that black women reported more comfort with being overweight, and were more likely to report themselves as underweight when they were in the normal range. Researchers suggested two reasons for why black women may look at weight standards differently from other groups. One reason is black women may be distancing themselves from the unrealistic weight standards of white culture. The other reason may due to lingering historical depictions of black female slaves as heavy, sexless, and deviant. These findings suggest that the effects of racism from the past and present, and the trauma associated with racism, may play a critical role in black women’s health. Past historical depictions and the trauma associated with racism must be considered when dealing with and effectively treating eating disorders in the black female population.
The Role of Depression
Black women may also be more susceptible to depression. In a recent study comparing black women in the U.S. to African and Caribbean women, researchers found that black females in the U.S. showed much higher rates of depression. This finding indicates racism may have impacted U.S. born black females more greatly than black women born in other countries.
Another study on depression and coping behaviors in adolescent black and white females found that those who reported higher levels of depression were more likely to experience an eating disorder. Additionally, women who reported recurrent binge eating had the highest levels of psychological distress. The correlation between the level of depression and the likelihood of an eating disorder is clear in both white and black female populations. Both depression and eating disorders feed off one another creating a vicious cycle. While bingeing minimizes unwanted feelings, the weight-related issues of bingeing increase feelings of depression. Additionally, black women cope differently with depression. Instead of relying on drugs or alcohol for relief, they tend to rely on other means to offset or manage these feelings.
While more studies focused on black women are necessary, there are things women can do now to protect their health and well-being.
1. Acknowledge the Signs and Symptoms
It’s imperative for black women to learn how to recognize both the symptoms and causes of eating disorders so they do not suffer alone or in silence. Although getting spiritual and religious support is beneficial, it’s also important to understand the complexity of treating eating disorders. Eating disorders pose a host of intricate issues and are just as serious as any other addiction.
2. Getting Help Is a Sign of Strength, Not Weakness
Even though black women have higher rates of binge eating, obesity and depression, they are less likely to seek help. The belief that getting help is a sign of weakness in the Strong Black Woman identity must be overcome. Black women can maintain their identity of strength but must modify it to include getting professional help when faced with a health issue such as depression, an eating disorder or another stress-related illness.
3. Adopt Positive Coping Strategies
Learning and adopting new coping strategies to deal with high levels of stress is very beneficial in preventing illness and disease. Discovering ways to handle difficult situations at work or at home, feeling comfortable saying no when necessary and taking time for self-care are all important strategies in dealing with stress and preventing disease or illness.
Strength and nurturing are wonderful qualities and they shouldn’t be dismissed as part of a black woman's identity, but these qualities must be balanced in order for black women to protect their health and the health of future generations.
Ives A. What You Need to Know About Eating Disorders. Ebony. 2017. Retrieved http://www.ebony.com/wellness-empowerment/eating-disorders-health#axzz4mTPm4Dcj
Offutt MR. The Strong Black Woman, Depression, and Emotional Eating. Scholar Commons: University of Southern Florida. 2013: 1-113. Retrieved http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5935&context=etd
Woods-Giscombé CL. Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health. Qualitative health research. 2010;20(5):668-683. doi:10.1177/1049732310361892.