Some Sisters Aren’t After Thick Thighs
Or what it’s like to be a “Strong Black Woman” with an eating disorder
Thirteen, and I did what thirteen year olds do. I liked what thirteen year olds like. I ate what thirteen year olds eat.
Nah, not really.
At thirteen, I had a secret thing I did with food. I had a log, a food log. Every day, after a day of school where no one spoke to me, where I was alone in a sea of people, I would come home to my log. Every food had a score, and every day, after a day of school where no one spoke to me, I would tally up the score for the day, and I would try to do ‘better’ tomorrow.
Better meant a lower score, better meant less food. Eating turned into an agitating act, food was the enemy, and so I hated every morsel I put in my mouth.
Nineteen and I did what nineteen year olds do. I liked what nineteen year olds like. I ate what nineteen year olds eat.
Nah, not really.
At nineteen, I spoke to someone about the secret thing I did with food, the secret thing I did with food when I was thirteen, that I couldn’t stop doing, even though I wasn’t thirteen anymore. I spoke to someone about the days at school where no one spoke to me, and how much I hated myself when I ate what nineteen year olds eat. So slowly food became a way of feeding my body and the voices that screamed whenever I ate started to fade. They didn’t disappear.
Twenty-three and I do what twenty-three year olds do. I like what twenty-three year olds like. I eat what twenty-three year olds eat. And then sometimes I go to the gym. So I can eat what twenty-three year olds eat, in peace.
On the surface, this sounds like a cute little poem about a textbook case of a girl with an eating problem.
Nah, not really.
The girl in the poem is Black. The girl in the poem is me.
As a sister with an eating problem my experience has been tinged with extra layers of shame. Shame for being a statistical anomaly. Shame for not being understood by those who look the most like me. Shame for never being able to live up to ideals of Black femininity rooted in strength.
Mainstream culture places greater emphasis on thinness, whereas curvier body types are often held as the ideal within Black culture*. From Hip-Hop songs with bars about big booties to every R&B song that praises women with thick thighs, Black culture is saturated with positive images of larger women.
This was really confusing for me, as I was constantly being presented with two opposing beauty standards. I appreciated the curves of my home girls, while resenting myself for not being thin enough.
I often felt that my burning desire to be thin went against My Blackness.
The brothers love a bodied woman, so why would they like me?
This conflict increased when I started dating. The first boy I ever spoke to about my eating disorder thought I was joking and this negro immediately began laughing. It took him several minutes to realize I was serious, but I could tell he couldn’t quite fathom why I would want to be thin or why I would starve myself to achieve it. The idea to him was laughable as there was no doubt in his mind that curvy women were beautiful. We never spoke of it again.
I’mma get real with you for minute.
The reality of socializing with someone with an eating disorder is that I’m not eating pizza after nine at night, even if I’m hungry. I don’t want to go to the family barbecue or the church potluck. I’m flattered that you’ve cooked for me, and I am happy to cook for you, but you might be eating alone either way.
Bruh, if I eat enough to feel full, I don’t get niggeritis, I get a panic attack and an existential crisis.
This has often put me in a difficult position because food is an important part of any culture. Black culture is no exception. The kitchen is where we assert our identity; food is a social ritual which we all partake in. My mental illness and my culture are therefore at odds because I don’t love food. Food isn’t the big bad wolf that it was for me ten years ago, but I still don’t enjoy it as much as those around me.
I can’t get excited about food; I’m just not about that life.
And that’s what really sets me apart from my loved ones. I feel unable to wholeheartedly enjoy an important part of Black culture. It’s clear to me that none of my black friends really understand my problem. One friend boldly asserted that:
Black people don’t get eating disorders.
But, we do.
Another well meaning friend once patronizingly highlighted that watermelon has no calories after I had already eaten my fair share.
I know booboo.
Most of my Black friends don’t even know about my condition. I’ve always felt more comfortable talking to my White friends about my issues as many of them have felt like me at some point in their lives. Paradoxically, it’s the friends who I have the most in common with, who look like me and have the same cultural background and values, who struggle to understand this aspect of me.
I personally believe eating disorders — anorexia, bulimia and binge eating — are prevalent among black women, but I also think the strong, independent Black woman stereotype prevents us from seeking the help we need. Black women are warriors. Black women are goddesses. Black women don’t take shit from anyone. We are strong, we bear the children then get back to business — B said so herself.
We are all those things. We are, however, still human, and sometimes being strong is about being honest about our issues.
The point of this piece is not to claim ultimate victim status or highlight how normal Black women are by being subject to the same mental illnesses as White women. The point is merely to spotlight an issue that doesn’t get much attention in our communities.
Let’s start a discussion on eating disorders because we are not immune to them.
Black culture in this context is African American culture, in addition to African and Caribbean cultures. I know that they are all different and unique, but for the purpose of this article I’m talking about all three at once and referring to them as Black culture.