Trigger warning: graphic discussions of an eating disorder
Growing up, I was known as the bubbly girl in class, with love for everything and everyone. Unfortunately, when I turned 15, I developed what would be the beginning of an eating disorder that would steal the color from my life for a long time. It has been a difficult journey, and it’s been made even harder by the stereotypes that stood in the way of me getting help.
My first experience in therapy ended in tears, but not the cathartic ones I was expecting. Instead of being listened to, I found myself being stereotyped as a ‘troubled black youth’. I was told that my eating disorder existed because I came from a dysfunctional family, because I was jealous of white girls in my class, and because I had absent parents. None of the above explanations were relevant to me: I was struggling with deep body image issues after a comment from a peer. However, I didn’t get a chance to tell my therapist that.
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That same therapist told me my family was a wreck, and that the solution for my problem – she refused to call it an eating disorder – was to start eating properly. She said that black girls were growing to be strong women, that I needed to be strong. She said that black women deal with problems bigger than eating disorders. She made me feel ashamed to be asking for help that I desperately needed.
The next therapist I saw immediately told me she had never treated a black girl with an eating disorder. She added that, usually, she treated black girls for having a bad attitude, or being uncooperative in class. I was shocked. I finally understood why many of my friends with eating disorders didn’t get help: the help that was available didn’t want to help us. The help that we could get – if we were lucky enough to get it – wasn’t made for us. It didn’t see us as we were: young girls looking for help. Instead, it saw us as attention-seekers and trouble-makers.
In the early stages of my treatment, my doctors and therapists all bought into the stereotypes associated with young black women. In one instance, instead of listening to me talk about how I was feeling about my food intake that week, my therapist asked me if my father was imprisoned or absent. There was little focus on getting to know things about me that they obviously didn’t know; instead, they focused on their assumptions about me. It took a long time for me to finally find a therapist who wanted to help me instead of stereotype me.
The ‘strong black woman’ stereotype directly harms black women, especially when we’re vulnerable and when we need help. Many health professionals believe that black women don’t need help because black women are often the sources of help in their friendship groups and communities. However, pillars of strength rarely receive support. Instead of seeing us as rock-solid pillars, we need society to start to see us as people. Real people, with real problems specific to the individual, in need of support.
It took far too long for me to get the help that I needed because of the stereotypes and myths surrounding race and mental health. We need to arrive at a place where anyone can access help without being made to feel weak. More importantly, we need to keep looking for help. If you’re in a position where you feel like you need help with an eating disorder, keep looking. Your recovery is possible.
Note: This post discusses one woman’s experiences with her eating disorder. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please consult the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website for help.