When it comes to psychological studies and research of men and women, it can be very generalised. When looking at body dissatisfaction, it becomes even more uncompromising – particularly for women of colour.
Until very recently, women of colour have had very few physical role models that they could look up to, and young women of colour therefore had to compare themselves to the body images portrayed in the media who looked nothing like them – both in shape as well as colour. When I was thirteen, I used to compare myself to Britney Spears and then at fourteen I’d compare my thighs to my school friends’ and wonder why mine were so much bigger than theirs.
Only until recently, research has been dedicated to eating disorders specifically amongst these group of women (women of colour), who have being ignored, purely because it was believed that it didn’t exist (Arriaza & Mann, 2001; George & Franko, 2010; Smart, 2010b), however new research suggests that adolescents, are either like or at a higher risk than European women. I was at the height of my bulimia and over-exercising when between the ages of fourteen and eighteen.
When it comes to eating disorders amongst women of colour, we have unfortunately been let down; there is unfortunately very little research and this is because the Black African body shape can be attributed to all African and Caribbean women as the norm within that culture, therefore Western Clinicians dismiss that we might actually have any psychological body issues. However, a study by Taylor et al. (2007) found prevalence rates for anorexia among their African American sample and Caribbean Blacks sample, age of onset for anorexia (14.89).
What research has also found is that sufferers of eating disorders battle between two cultures: a dominant one and a home one – which one is the dominant one when you are person or colour and you look nothing like the women perpetuating the thin-ideal image on the billboards? And the TV? And the movies? And the magazines? And on the Underground/ Subway ads? So then you feel guilty and disgust and self-hatred that you’re rejecting your own culture, and so you punish yourself.
Pumariega et al. (1994) surveyed the Essence magazine African American female readership regarding their disordered eating attitudes and behaviors and their African American cultural identity. Results from their study suggested that the risk for developing eating disorders for African American women was the same as for their European American counterparts.
“Some researchers contend that African American women may use binge eating as a maladaptive coping strategy to manage negative affect (D. J. Harris & Kuba, 1997; Root, 1990, 2001; Smolak & Striegel-Moore, 2001; Talleyrand, 2006). Binge eating has also been linked to obesity, which may be used to explain the high levels of excess weight or obesity in African American women” (Striegel-Moore et al., 2000; Talleyrand, 2006), if they are using these habits as a method of dealing with psychological issues as they battle with societal pressures from their own culture and a foreign culture.
In conclusion, my research found that strong cultural identity protected African American women against some anorexia- and bulimia-related risk factors. Wood and Petrie (2010) also tested a sociocultural model of eating disorders on a sample (N = 322) of African American college women and found that women who internalized societal messages about beauty, reported engaging in eating disorder symptoms. In addition, the higher their level of ethnic identity, the less they internalised societal messages about beauty. This could mean that they were surrounded by healthy role models, or were brought up encouraged in appreciating Black Beauty for its true magnificence.
Therefore, this study believes that high levels of ethnic identity indirectly protected African American women from engaging in eating disorder symptoms. feelings of powerlessness and a lack of control driving women of colour to use food (e.g., either restricting food or bingeing) to cope with their feelings of internalised racism or to reject societal standards of beauty (Kempa & Thomas, 2000; Thompson, 1994, 1997). I have to agree.
Thus, it is imperative that researchers assess levels of oppression and stress and coping behaviours when studying eating disorders in women of color. One manner of assessing how an individual internalises racial oppression is the use of racial identity theory, which to be honest a lot of clinicians do not understand.
More research needs to be done, as it is evident that not only white, middle class women suffer from eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.
However, I believe that we have come a long way in educating our young men and women of colour in coming to terms with their own biology, so that they are not turning to whitewashed mainstream media for that education instead.
But please stop forgetting about us.