Lies about beauty permeate American culture and the standards of physical attractiveness put forth are unachievable. Despite this, the unsustainable holy grail of American beauty is often sought at any cost, to the detriment of both our physical and spiritual identities. In the midst of our striving to believe and achieve the impossible, it’s easy for an eating disorder to develop and take hold as we try to be people we are not.
Eating disorders – such as body dysmorphia, anorexia, and bulimia – affect people of all backgrounds, and at similar rates. In the Black community, they are rarely talked about or understood. Long held distrust of the medical community, complex social and economic factors, and cultural celebrations of fuller, more voluptuous bodies have all made it difficult to recognize this mental health challenge within our community and – for those afflicted –to seek help. The permeating silence of one’s experience with an eating disorder can be pronounced and further complicated during seasons of compromised, illusory, or fatally non-existent identity.
As a Black girl growing up in Ohio and raised in predominantly White environments, I struggled to understand who I was in relation to my race and body. The images I saw daily of girls who looked nothing like me, but simultaneously shared some economic similarities was incredibly confusing. An internal war with my hair texture and skin color took root and blossomed into a full-fledged oak tree during my high school and college years. The constant pressure to excel, to embody perfection, to receive acceptance, and to dis-prove the stereotypical images of Black women consumed my days and nights. Everything was focused on not being the “other” – including the contortion of my body into an unrealistic, unsustainable, identity-defying shape that scoffed at the power of grace and self-love. Imposed mainly by the achievement of worldly standards and my warped understanding of blackness, womanhood, and identity, I struggled to find my voice. I struggled to hear and know the sound of true self-expression.
It wasn’t until my eating disorder peaked in law school that I could no longer deny the deafening silence of my spirit. Deep inside me was the desire to work with children and families, yet a worldly compulsion to enter a more traditional, “white collar” job continued to distract me. My six-year eating disorder recovery battle ensued, leading to multiple hospitalizations that ultimately totaled more than a year of in-patient medical treatment. Anger ensued. Depression took root. Confusion abounded. Seeking the world’s holy grail almost cost me my life on many occasions.
Ultimately, I received treatment from the Eating Recovery Center (ERC) in Cincinnati and began the process of unpacking the world’s understandings of race and womanhood, and the very things I had allowed to define and mediate my life. It was time to release theory and sit squarely in the face of praxis – to do the hard work associated with growth and experiential learning. I left law school to pursue a career in education. It was time for me to do the things I so desperately wanted to teach my students in my role as a guidance counselor.
Overall, the identity, discovery-recovery process wasn’t easy, but it certainly proved to be worth it. The care I received at ERC launched me into new seasons of strength, wisdom, and freedom. The allure of authenticity yielded greater self-honesty, connection, and robust relationships for me. Life continued to change in both complex and simple ways. Personal rhythms flourished easily. Professional work demonstrated a passionate exuberance. Who I was on the outside no longer conflicted with who I knew myself to be on the inside.
Eventually, my eating disorder subsided, and from chaos, order was established. I developed a deep faith in Jesus Christ, and watched His ministry of grace transform my heart, mind, and behavior. In truly discovering God for myself and not through the faith of others, I came to love myself as perfectly imperfect. I began to see myself the way God sees me. I was, indeed, full of idiosyncrasies and faults, but also loved and made whole by His redemption and forgiveness. With God, the eating disordered, racialized, and cultural lies I had believed for years were dismantled. The lies that told me I wasn’t enough, that no one would ever love me, that strong, Black womanhood was offensive, and that being brown was shameful are gone.
Today, these words continue to feed my Christian, Black womanhood. They are words that allow me to pour into my passion – youth education and the coaching of diverse women seeking spiritual transformation and connection. While my journey into loving and living my true, authentic identity began through the restriction of calories, intense exercise, and the denial of what race meant in my life, today I walk hand-in-hand with others, adamant that no one has to suffer in silence or be defined by the world’s holy grail. No one has to be ashamed of any part of themselves; for each of us is much more than just our physical characteristics.
Resources for Black Mental Health and Eating Disorders:
- National Eating Disorders Association https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
- ANAD https://anad.org/
- The Loveland Foundation www.thelovelandfoundation
- Black Mental Health Alliance www.blackmentalhealth.com
- Black Emotional Mental Health Collective (BEAM) www.beam.community
- Grace Alliance www.mentalhealthgracealliance.org
Siobhan Taylor is the founder of Conflicts of the Heart, a Christian woman’s small group ministry and blog. Additionally, she has served as a school administrator in a variety of contexts. Her current executive role allows her to serve students, families, and faculty in a faith-based, high school environment in Cincinnati, OH. For more information on Conflicts of the Heart, visit www.conflictsoftheheart.com.