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Women of Color Get Eating Disorders Too

Eating Disorders Do Not Discriminate

While considered "White women's problems," disorders such as anorexia and bulimia affect Black women as well.

For all the information and raised awareness, the stereotype won’t die—eating disorders are a White-woman problem. And it’s not just a false image set forth by Lifetime movies and the author pics of eating disorder memoirists. Communities of color buy into it, too. “There’s this mentality that this is a White chick illness,” says nutritionist Michele Vivas, who specializes in eating disorder treatment and works with teenagers in Oakland, Calif. “An African-American girl came in and her mom suggested to the school principal that they start a program to increase eating disorder awareness. The principal looked at her and said, ‘Why would we have that? Black folks don’t get eating disorders.’ ”

Doctors have this misconception, too. A 2006 study found that clinicians were less likely to assign an eating disorder diagnosis to a fictional character based on her case history if her race was represented as African-American rather than Caucasian or Hispanic. And although statistics do show that eating disorders predominantly occur in White women, many eating disorder professionals believe those numbers are skewed, as women of color have been alienated from a support network that for too long has bought into the myth.

“When eating disorders were first being recognized, people seeking treatment were young, White girls, so the belief developed early that nobody else suffers from them,” says Gayle Brooks, vice president and chief clinical officer of the Renfrew Center, the country’s first residential treatment facility for eating disorders. “When that became the core of our understanding, we stopped looking at diversity being an issue. We missed a lot.”

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