“If you don’t start exercising, you’re not going to get married.”
These are the words IU sophomore Nidhee Patel heard from her father as a kid. Patel is one of many minorities in the U.S. struggling with disordered eating.
Eating disorders, also known as EDs, are mental illnesses which can cause serious health issues such as severe weight and hair loss, dehydration, fatigue, anemia, infertility and heart problems.
According to a study done by Dr. Kristen Fuller at Psychology Today, people have an inaccurate idea of what someone with an ED looks like, they usually associate it with a white woman. People of color face racial issues white people do not, which can contribute to EDs, Fuller said.
“The risk factors, stereotypes and stigma attached to minority populations in regards to weight, body image and diet contribute to these minority individuals experiencing hurdles to access appropriate eating disorder treatment,” she said.
The desire to look similar to her white counterparts stems from wanting to fit in, Patel said. Food and culture are intertwined, making it harder for her to achieve that goal of blending in with her white counterparts.
“Food is a big part of culture if you’re not white,” she said. “And European features in general are so much more desired. They’re thin, they have light skin and that’s something that I’ve seen a lot growing up.”
In addition to this, minority parents see struggles like EDs as taboo and at times made up, Patel said. Her doctors never heard her struggles either.
“A lot of parents are not fully aware of what it means to go to therapy,” she said. “I also felt like I wouldn’t be heard in the same way [by doctors].”
Patel’s feelings are consistent with the findings from Fuller’s study, particularly in the way the health care systems ignore feelings and health issues faced by minorities, Black people specifically. Providers are blinded by the stereotypes associated with eating disorders, causing them to disregard minorities, according to Fuller.
The National Eating Disorders Association researched identical case studies showing ED symptoms in white, Hispanic and Black women. They asked clinicians to diagnose the women.
The study showed 44% of clinicians identified the white woman’s eating behaviors as disordered, 41% identified the Hispanic woman’s behavior as disordered, while only 17% identified the Black woman’s behavior as disordered.
Fuller adds that the clinicians in NEDA’s study were less likely to recommend Black women to receive professional help, the statistics also show that Black teenagers have a higher prevalence of disordered eating patterns compared to their white counterparts. For example, Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to display bulimic behaviors.
While people are becoming more aware of eating disorders, we still need increased awareness for minorities struggling with the same eating problems, even those that receive treatment. Mental health holds a certain stigma that is played up in communities of color and we cannot ignore this anymore.
“White therapists are not going to understand how hard it is for people of color to deal with eating disorders,” Patel said. “Therapists need to be more understanding with people of color’s experiences, otherwise we’re not gonna see real change.”