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Commentary: 'Black People Don't Have Eating Disorders'

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Is there a connection between Black History Month and National Eating Disorders Awareness Week? For me, there is. I am Black and have spent years struggling with disordered eating. Let me share my process of accepting these two areas of my life. I believe that my eating disorder, which began around seventh grade, was partially driven by my unease with being Black. When I was younger, I didn't know how to accept being a person of color. I felt awkward in my skin, convinced that I didn't fit the Black mold, didn't act "Black enough." Developing an eating disorder did not help matters. At that time I didn't know any other African Americans who struggled with bulimia or anorexia. I knew plenty who were overeaters, but I figured that didn't count. They might be terribly overweight, but they didn't have eating disorders. No, that was one of those weird diseases that White girls got when they'd starve or vomit to stay skinny--that same weird disease that I had. In junior high, I drank up African American history. I read books on the Civil Rights Movement and slavery and watched "Eyes on the Prize" over and over again. While I enjoyed these topics, I felt a lot of guilt and shame about my eating disorder. My people went through so much, I thought. How can I disrespect their legacy by being so superficial and obsessed with my weight? I had difficulty accepting myself because I couldn't reconcile my actions with how I thought I was supposed to be. Let's skip ahead a couple years. At this point, I was a freshman in high school. I'd been under-eating, over-eating, over-exercising and purging for three years. My life was starting to feel insane and I wanted to find a different path. I entered Stanford Hospital's eating disorder clinic in the spring. It was my first time getting help. I was nervous and unsure of what to expect. The first hour was a whirlwind--paperwork, measurements, and meetings with a nurse, psychiatrist, and nutritionist. Next, I met another nurse. Things began without incident. I was pleasantly surprised that the she was black. She seemed warm and easygoing.  We made small talk as she took my vitals. Then she asked, "Why are you here?" I tried to hold my head high, not to proclaim or boast, but because I instinctively wanted to lower it, and I was trying to reassure myself that I didn't need to be ashamed. After all, it was an eating disorder facility and she worked with patients like me all day. Plus, I was just as entitled to my dysfunction as anyone else. Nonetheless, my stomach knotted as I tried to say steadily, "I have an eating disorder." Her eyes opened wide and she informed me, "Black people don't get eating disorders." I felt as if the air was knocked out of me. She wasn't trying to be malicious, but it didn't matter. Her offhand comment exposed a gnawing fear that I had tried to ignore. When I first saw this nurse, I hoped for compassion--a hug, a sympathetic smile. Instead, she expressed an opinion that I feared everyone else believed. I felt furious, confused, distressed, amused, betrayed, ashamed and very alone.  Who does this woman think she is? I'm Black and I have an eating disorder. Despite the fact that I was upset, I responded the only way I could think of--I smiled at her. I pretended that her thoughtless remark was okay, that I was okay. In reality, I felt devastated. Can you believe it took years for me to repeat that tiny conversation? I thought the nurse had voiced the general consensus, and I didn't want to call any more attention to my racial-behavioral conflict. Finally, though, while in an eating disorder support group, I decided to talk about it. I lightly tapped my foot into the pond, wondering if I would be swallowed alive when I revealed the situation. These people obviously can see that I'm Black, but when I tell them what the nurse said, they'll probably agree with her. My heart pounded, breath shortened, hands felt clammy as I repeated the brief incident. You know what? I wasn't swallowed alive. The ceiling didn't fall on me; the race police didn't haul me away; nobody screamed. Instead, the others in the room listened to me--some indignant, some sympathetic--but all caring. Their compassionate responses helped me share my story again and again. Don't get me wrong--it wasn't easy. My stomach would still tighten and I'd feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. Each time, though, it became a little easier. Sometimes I'd even joke about it: "Yep, I'm Black and bulimic--go figure!" As I continued to share and didn't disintegrate, something miraculous began to happen--my shame subsided. The more I shared, the more I accepted myself. Up to that point, though, I'd only shared my experiences with non-Black people (because those were the only people I met who had eating disorders). When I started going to Howard University, I found myself becoming more uncomfortable again. I don't know if I want to tell anyone here; they'll think I'm a freak. Over time, though, I opened up to one friend, then another, and another, and kept sharing. By the time I was a sophomore and taking a public speaking class, I decided to give a speech about my experience with, and recovery from, disordered eating. The response was incredible.  Not one of my classmates gave me a funny look. They were receptive and after I finished, thanked me for talking about my experience and trusting them enough to share it. I still sometimes feel vulnerable and apprehensive when I share about being a woman of color and having an eating disorder, but I push through it.  I realize that I can have my own experiences, joys and setbacks without needing to analyze if it fits others' misconceptions.  I have a simple check-off list: Does God accept me? Yes. Do I accept myself? Yes. If these two areas are in sync, I spend a lot less energy on what people might think. I've found that the less time I spend worrying about what others might think, the more time I have to focus on my recovery. So as Black History Month is coming to a close and we're in the middle of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I can celebrate both of them. I am so incredibly grateful to our forbearers who paved the way for the current advances we as African Americans experience; it motivates me to be the best I can be.  I also can respect my journey with disordered eating because it has helped me learn about myself and grow in ways that I probably wouldn't have otherwise.  Each serves its purpose, and I embrace them. Read more:
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