EDs and race

When people are asked to picture someone with an eating disorder they will probably have in mind a middle class white girl. It’s the common stereotype. However, like other mental illnesses, anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of their race or gender.

I read an interesting article, Blacks with Bulimia: Hiding in Plain Sight which features an African American woman, Stephanie Armstrong, who struggled with an eating disorder. She has written a memoir of her experience with bulimia, Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat.

We do need to recognise that black people are succeptable to EDs too. As it says in the article, it can be difficult to seek treatment when African Americans are typically perceived as being ‘strong,’ too strong to need psychological help. If you want to seek treatment, the majority of those treating you will probably be white so you will have to step outside of your race.

After reading the article, I do feel that something is missing though…namely that it doesn’t mention anything about people from other cultures with eating disorders.

Yes, being an Asian female who struggles with bulimic behaviours I feel under represented. And maybe someone else reading the article, for example, a Hispanic who has an eating disorder, will also feel that he or she is under represented. It only talks about whites and blacks with no greys (or yellows in my case) in between.

Just as African Americans are not immune to eating disorders, neither are Asians. And it is difficult to be an Asian with an eating disorder too.

Asians are typically perceived as being naturally thin, because of our genes. Because of this, Asians with eating disorders may not want to admit that they have to starve themselves or go to extreme lengths to keep themselves slim, embarrassed that other Asians can stay slim without effort.

In our culture there is also the concept of ‘saving face.’ Already in a western culture people can feel a shame in having a mental illness and a weakness in admitting it and asking for help, this shame and embarrasment can be even more prevalent in the Asian culture which can stop people from asking for help. I’ve also found that people in a western culture can be a bit more open about their mental health problems than people from an Asian culture who tend to be less willing to let people in.

Asian kids a lot of the time have high expectations put on them by parents and feel that they have to be ‘perfect.’ This ‘perfect’ may translate to having the ‘perfect body’ (although really, what the hell is the ‘perfect body’ anyway?) and another side of it is that in trying to be perfect, they do not want to admit to anyone that they are struggling with an ED, a mental health problem. They don’t want to tarnish that image of the good student who gets good grades, does well in school and is a respectful and demure young lady and so they don’t seek help.

I guess in many ways I am that typical Asian girl. At least on the outside. I mean, I had to obey my parents, I was a ‘good student’ at school and behaved (most of the time), I was hardworking and got pretty good grades, I didn’t go to wild parties with my friends and didn’t drink (much) or do drugs…yet behind all that I was self harming, I had depression, I had social anxety and I was engaging in ED behaviours. Although I know that anyone can have mental health issues and develop an eating disorder, I have has thoughts of, ‘I’m Asian, I shouldn’t have an ED, I shouldn’t be having these mental health problems…no other Asians I know have these problems.’ And trust me, I know Asians…being the typical Asian that I am, the majority of my close friends are Asian.

In the above mentioned article, Armstrong says she felt like an outsider in treatment and couldn’t identify with the ‘rich white girls’ there. I imagine there aren’t many Asian girls in treatment for an eating disorder either and an Asian would feel just as out of place.

I know for me personally I don’t know any other Asians with an eating disorder and I feel like I’m a minority. In fact I feel like I’m the only one when I KNOW there are others of my race who struggle with an ED too as I can’t be the only one. And I’m sure there are other people of other races who also struggle, who may feel similarly to me too.

We need to realise that white girls are not the only ones who suffer. And acknowlege that people of other cultures do have EDs too and tackle those barriers to seeking help.

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