They Said “Black Girls Don’t Have Eating Disorders”

by Chrystal Kusi

Edited by: Lia James

CW: Triggering material regarding eating disorders

I am really good at not eating. It’s a skill, painfully acquired through years of obsession over the effects of every bite. The skill I’m working on now is unlearning it.

I was 12 when I first learned about caloric intake. I became enamored by what seemed like a simple and logical approach to weight loss. As long as you take in less than you burn, boom!

Skinny.

To seventh grade me, receiving constant messaging that my 5-foot-tall body took up too much space in the world, dieting seemed like the solution to all my problems. I thought that if I was smaller, I would be prettier, I would like myself more, and other people would like me more. So I set out on a mission to be skinnier the “scientific” way. I had an endless list of diets to try, but how was I supposed to ask my parents to pick up a month’s worth of cayenne pepper and lemons for me to try the newest lemonade cleanse?

“How was I supposed to ask my parents to pick up a month’s worth of cayenne pepper and lemons for me to try the newest lemonade cleanse?”

When I realized that dieting by changing what I ate wasn’t as accessible as I had anticipated, I resorted to restrictions in the food I was already eating. I remember in the eighth grade my mother asked me why I insisted on only eating out of the smaller plates in the house. I might’ve told her that they were just easier to hold, or something. In reality, I had read an article weeks earlier about how full-sized plates were a gateway to gluttony. This trend of restrictive eating eventually led me to the air diet: instead of eating real meals, I would take deep breaths and imagine the food I craved. (I ate one real meal or snack a day, but the bulk of my “nutrition” was breathing). At 13 I thought this was brilliant, but now looking back I know it was nothing more than a creative form of starvation. Obviously, this was unsustainable and eventually terrible headaches forced me to put the air diet on pause.

“When I realized that dieting by changing what I ate wasn’t as accessible as I had anticipated, I resorted to restrictions in the food I was already eating.”

It wasn’t until I was 18, after years of a tumultuous relationship with food and dieting, that I realized I had an eating disorder. It never really clicked for me that there was anything wrong with the way that I engaged with my body and food until I went to therapy. The way I thought about it, I just wanted a smaller body and was “working” to achieve it; no big deal. Internalizing ideas of what a beautiful body is supposed to be led to feelings of pride when I was able to eat nothing but a banana in 24 hours. The absurdity of my actions never struck me, and this mindset allowed me to minimize the constant harm I was inflicting on my body in pursuit of smallness. The belief that being smaller was akin to being a better, happier person helped me rationalize my behavior as a form of “personal improvement.”

“The belief that being smaller was akin to being a better, happier person helped me rationalize my behavior as a form of “personal improvement.”

I wasn’t a skinny white girl, so there was no way I could have an eating disorder. The only image of people with eating disorders I had seen were white girls in tv shows picking at the nonexistent fat on their bodies. So me, a black girl, struggling with an eating disorder just didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit the script of what I was supposed to be and how I was supposed to feel about myself. It’s strange how instinctively I understood that the phrase “mental illness is for white people” held no water, yet I couldn’t make that connection when it came to eating disorders. It was only when I discovered communities of digital healing (like Unplug) that I realized how much so many of us have been suffering in silence without the space to heal.

“It was only when I discovered communities of digital healing (like Unplug) that I realized how much so many of us have been suffering in silence without the space to heal.”

I don’t think it would’ve been possible for me to begin to heal without first acknowledging the harm that had been done. How do you heal a gaping wound if you can’t even see the blood? I still don’t know exactly what a “healed” version of myself looks like, but allowing myself to feel pain without guilt has been a step in the right direction. Black girls have eating disorders too. And constantly lauding strength as the shining virtue of Black womanhood has weakened me more than it has ever “empowered” me. 

the unplug collective

6 thoughts on “They Said “Black Girls Don’t Have Eating Disorders””

  1. Thank you for sharing this x eating disorders are not confined to one age, gender or race and more people need to be aware

  2. Such a powerful read. I’ve had a similar experience with eating and body image as an adolescent and even now, I’m still working through my own recovery. Thanks for being so vulnerable, Chrystal.

  3. I think that Black women have a much higher rate of eating disorders or rather, “disordered eating” than I think is realized. We just call it a “cleanse” of some sort. It is still a problematic relationship to food. Everything revolves around restriction in some way. Even the women I know who wear waist trainers all day long to help to keep from eating–isn’t that a type of restriction?

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