As a teenager I had a close friend with some serious problems: severe depression, violent behavior, anxiety, etc. He was afflicted by stomach aches and it wasn’t uncommon for him to throw up when he was emotionally unstable. He was a picky eater which isn’t that abnormal, but I often noted that he seemed disgusted by food and deprived himself of it when he was unhappy. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he had at best a mild eating disorder. If he was a white female it would most likely have been obvious, but being an African-American male meant that a serious disease went untreated.
What I didn’t know then is that eating disorders aren’t really about dieting or thinness. Often they are more about control, and punishment. And as more studies are showing, they are less a problem facing white teenage girls and more a problem for Americans regardless of race, gender or age. In a recent issue, Newsweek published an article entitled It’s Not Just White Girls in which they displayed a large picture of Thandie Newton, a black actress, who recently divulged her battle with an eating disorder. The article rightly brings up the lack of real knowledge about who is afflicted:
“One study, by Wesleyan psychologist Ruth Striegel-Moore, found that black girls who do suffer from eating disorders are less likely to seek treatment. “I know stories of African-American women who’ve gone in to see a physician, with all the symptoms of an eating disorder, and the doctor says, ‘That’s a white girl’s disease’,” says Cynthia Bulik, an eating-disorder specialist at the University of North Carolina.”
However most studies suggest that Anorexia, the most serious eating disorder, has only recently migrated beyond white middle-class females. But when I think about my troubled friend some 12 years ago I can’t help but wonder if women of color and all men for that matter have simply been overlooked all along. If that’s the case it would coincide with what we already know about the influence of common stereotypes on the quality of medical treatment received by poor minorities.
Considering Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, it’s a possibility that the medical profession should take seriously. Anorexia kills upwards of 10% of all those afflicted with the disease, and some 40% remain chronically ill. That affects not just the victim, but the families who struggle to care for them. Although eating disorders are increasingly thought to be biological, the factors that trigger the disease are environmental. Ironically, this points to a society where we are all, regardless of race or gender, exposed to the same cultural stresses and anxieties.