It took three years for me to finally accept that I was suffering from anorexia nervosa. In the years prior to my diagnosis, I’d picked at my food, avoided meal times altogether or simply flushed my meals down the toilet. On some bad days, I would eat and then make myself sick after. In late September, during my first year of sixth form, my weight began to rapidly reduce, causing the nurses at school to be increasingly worried. Soon, I was required to have all school meals with the nurses in the sick bay. But when my school called my parents, worried at how quickly I was losing weight, my black Christian parents didn’t believe them. “Anorexia, how can you be anorexic?” asked my mother. “Do you think you’re one of those white girls at school?” she demanded. At the school’s request, my parents reluctantly allowed me to see an adolescent therapist who specialised in treating young women with eating disorders.
By that December, my Body Mass Index (BMI) had dropped significantly – to a tier of anorexia that is considered extreme. My school called my parents, telling them I was too sick to be at school and they were recommending a treatment facility. I still remember my father calling, telling me that I was not anorexic, because I was not a white girl, and he thought maybe a trip to see my aunt in Houston would improve my spirits. My mother called next and she repeatedly told me, “We don’t do this – we don’t become anorexic.” She reminded me that food was important in Igbo/Nigerian culture and she urged me to go spend time with her sister. I also remember telling my parents, “No.” I remember saying, “I need help.” I remember crying as I told them that I was going to the treatment facility with a school nurse the next day. And then I hung up.
Like many people of colour dealing with anorexia or other mental-health issues, I had no parental support. My parents never visited me in that treatment facility, where I was the only non-white patient
It’s a common misconception – and wildly insidious notion – that anorexia nervosa, bulimia and other eating disorders are for vulnerable, sensitive, middle-class, young white girls. Black women and women from minority ethnic communities are supposedly absolved from suffering from these illnesses because, in their cultures, food is a stand in for love, and larger, fuller, and curvier bodies are appreciated. Little research has focused on the prevalence of eating disorders among black and ethnic-minority communities in the UK. However, a study done by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) in the US found that Asian, black, Hispanic and Caucasian youth were attempting to lose weight at the same rates. Another study found that, while anorexia and bulimia were highly common among white women, black women were just as likely to report binge eating and vomiting, and those who reported binge eating and vomiting were also more likely to report fasting or using laxatives. While the research remains limited, it’s clear that eating disorders affects women – regardless of race, ethnicity or class – and we need to be addressing it as such.
While it’s one thing to accept that eating disorders affect all communities – black, Asian and minority ethnic – seeking help can also be difficult, especially when the general narrative is that eating disorders don’t affect you and there’s no representation on eating-disorder sites. But there’s an added stigma in communities of colour in the UK, especially when it comes to mental health. In fact, one in five black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals with mental-health issues shared that they felt that they were treated less favourably by their communities. For many, receiving a diagnosis is hard, but without community support, recovery can feel impossible.
When I first arrived at the treatment facility, the first thing I noticed was how everyone there was white. Being the only black woman in the facility, being surrounded by white women, made me feel isolated. Like many people of colour dealing with anorexia or other mental-health issues, I had no parental support. My parents never visited me in that treatment facility, where I was the only non-white patient. They called, a few times, trying to persuade me that I was fine and I should leave.
I came to the decision within a few days that a facility full of white girls was too disruptive for my care. Even though we shared an illness, their whiteness and overwhelming presence was a reminder of who gets help and who doesn’t – and how that needs to change. Critically, I was lucky that my doctor heard and understood my needs, seeing as it can often be hard for minority groups to feel supported by their mental-health providers.
Three years later, I’m at a healthy weight. There are things my body can do now that wasn’t possible when I was sick – climbing, snorkelling, swimming in the sea. But I know that I am one of the lucky ones: lucky I found doctors who saw me as a black woman; lucky I found nutritionists and therapists who cheered me on; lucky that even though my family denied that I had a eating disorder, the professionals didn’t.