By Kia Wakefield
For many years a stereotypical idea of the types of people affected by eating disorders has persisted – namely, that the disorders only affect white teen girls and young women. However, as is often the case with stereotypes, this perception of eating disorders is not valid.
Men, women and young people from many cultures and ethnic groups suffer from eating disorders. African-American women are among those who are prone to disordered eating and body image problems.
Some African American women are taking laxatives, vomiting and engaging in other behaviors that endanger their bodies. Although other ethnicities have a tendency to be at a higher risk for negative behaviors surrounding body image, there has been a rise in body image distortion problems among black women.
Physical Characteristics and Body Image
A number of eating disorder studies involving African-American women have revealed that these women are less likely to have an eating disorder and are more likely to be satisfied with their bodies.
Researchers believe this is because African-American women were more likely to base their definition of attractiveness on more than body size. African-American women were more likely to consider characteristics such as grooming, wardrobe and mannerisms in defining their attractiveness.
The University of North Carolina’s psychology department discovered that when it comes to evaluating physical characteristics, black women focus more on specific aspects of their body rather than focusing on their overall body image. They are more apt to place an emphasis on positive features instead of attempting to obtain a beauty ideal based on media.
Unfortunately, data from a recent community-based study revealed an uptick in the number of African-American women who are being treated in eating disorder clinics. African-American women were just as likely to participate in daily bingeing and the use of laxatives as white women. The studies also determined that African American women were more likely to report using diuretics to avoid weight gain.
The New York Times recently ran an article on increases in eating disorders among African-American women. The article explained that in the past decade there’s been a tremendous cultural shift. The ideal body image is becoming narrower, and women from various cultures are feeling the need to be thin in order to fit in.
According to Dr. Stefanie Gilbert, assistant professor of psychology at Howard University, magazines, television, and other media outlets are contributing to the eating disorders experienced among African-American women. Dr. Gilbert explained that black women pictured in magazines often have body types similar to those of thin, white models. Paradoxically, there is an increased pressure on African-American women to be thin. Some African-Americans equate being thin with being successful and there are a growing number of women who believe if they can lose weight they will be happier.
It isn’t just the media that plays a role in eating disorders. There are other factors to be blamed. For example, one such factor is stress. Studies have proved that individuals who are over-stressed are at risk for eating disorders, including self-starvation (anorexia), bingeing and purging (bulimia) and overeating (binge eating disorder).
Some of the deeper psychological factors that can contribute to eating disorders in African-American communities include family problems, dysfunction in the home, parental substance abuse, stress and a history of abuse.
Studies and Treatment
Much work remains to be done in the study of eating disorders among minority populations.
Sadly, many African-American women with eating disorders often go unnoticed until the disorder reaches a dangerous level. Some experts believe that middle-class white women are more likely to receive and seek psychological treatment; therefore, they were more likely to be the only subjects engaged in studies.
However, as statistical trends and health data are proving, African-American women have no cultural immunity to eating disorders.