I thought I was everything but bulimic. Gluten-intolerant. Carb-phobic. A sensitive soul with a sensitive stomach. But bulimia? Definitely not. That word and all other eating disorders were “white girl problems” to me.
It was the 100 year old Chardonnay of shitty coping mechanisms that only grew more expensive and detrimental with age. I had assumed that eating disorders were a luxury only certain people could afford to have, considering all the levels of bullshit people of color go through. It was only when my mother watched me purge my existence away minutes after the new year did something click inside for the both of us.
This wasn’t just an upset stomach. I had a problem.
But still, I vehemently denied the notion of bulimia. I told myself I was just…kind of messed up. Years of dieting, restricting and having no say in what I could eat made me a nervous wreck around food. My body dysmorphia was a manifestation of a harrowing childhood rife with obesity and rampant bullying. So through the suggestion of a therapist who insisted (to my then surprise) that more help was necessary, I applied to an outpatient program called Center for Discovery, where I found myself checking yes to all their questions about disordered eating. But the final straw was when the doctor told me that I was going to be admitted to a partial hospitalization program for bulimia.
When we’re dealing with misogyny, racism, xenophobia, sexuality and identity, the idea of adding anorexia or bulimia goes over our heads.
My weeks at the program, the questions that was running through my head were the same every day. There are so many women in my community who suffer from disordered eating: why aren’t they here at this program? Why am I only seeing white women? This is an epidemic I’ve seen in several women from my own community. So why am I one of only two women of color here?
In a way, it’s not that we do not have the privilege to obtain a eating disorder. Rather many of us have neither the knowledge of how nuanced disordered eating is, nor feel like we have the right to claim our eating disorders as our own. When we’re dealing with misogyny, racism, xenophobia, sexuality and identity, the idea of adding anorexia or bulimia goes over our heads. If anything it would seem trivial to bring it up, even if disordered eating can be lethal.
“Frequently, someone may be facing some kind of distress and not know how to manage it,” Dr. Lesley Williams, a leading eating disorder specialist said in the Huffington Post. “Instead of talking to someone about it, they look to food as a form of comfort…many times, turning to food is more acceptable than [seeking]professional help, therapy or even medication.”
Most people who are ignorant about this problem would think the solution is simple: either eat more food or just stop throwing up. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. But it’s never that easy. Eating disorders are hard to decipher because they’re tied in with something our community fangirls hard on: food.
South Asian females having a higher prevalence of eating issues (specifically bulimia nervosa) due to cultural and parental influences.
Our culture loves food in a way that’s hard to explain in words. It’s a full body experience that is beautiful, mesmerizing and overwhelming. Indian food is complex, loving, comforting but with a punch that can knock you out.
In the program I realized how much our culture talks in a way that promotes disordered eating and bad body image, especially in regards to women. The “tough love” your family gives you maybe well-intentioned but inevitably is a factor that can exacerbate or lead to eating disorders. Telling you to lose weight to find a “suitable partner,” body checking you by poking at your belly fat, making misogynistic comments about a bride’s appearance at a wedding – we’ve seen it, heard it, and experienced it, but mostly we have brushed it aside as normal.
This is backed by an actual peer study from the European Eating Disorder Review. It says South Asian females having a higher prevalence of eating issues (specifically bulimia nervosa) due to cultural and parental influences.
“McCourtand Waller (1995) found that South Asian schoolgirls in the UK had a significantly higher level of perceived maternal overprotection than their North European counterparts,” the study said. “The South Asian sample had significantly unhealthier eating attitudes, upon which their perception of maternal overcontrol had a significant effect.”
These eating disorders are cultivated by mothers who are overprotective of their children to the point that it exacerbates on going problems such as depression, anxiety, and bad body image.
When I was deep in my eating disorder, I used binging and purging as a way to cope with stress, trauma, and grief. It did the job wonderfully, even if it cost me my physical health.
Dr. Sanjay Chugh, a leading doctor who specializes in eating disorders in India, spoke to me about why eating disorders are so prevalent in our community. It’s more than just the way we eat.
“The subject of mental health has always been a tabooed subject in our country,” Chugh said, “It is only in the last decade there is awareness and people are talking about common disorders like depression and anxiety. A problem like eating disorder is still not very well recognized.”
Eating disorders are more than just a detrimental way of consuming food, they are connected to our mental health as well. When I was deep in my eating disorder, I used binging and purging as a way to cope with stress, trauma, and grief. It did the job wonderfully, even if it cost me my physical health. It was a sadistic pleasure that was a step up from my even more harmful coping mechanisms.
But there is a solution, Chugh says. Awareness is key if we want to turn the tide on disordered eating.
“We usually talk about health versus unhealthy eating but never address what is disordered eating,” Chugh said. “Also, informing people that this illness needs medical attention and that professional help is available.”
But how do we get to a point in our community where people feel comfortable enough to talk about their eating disorders? In a culture such as ours where we glorify food, promote binging, and stress the importance of body image, it will take more than a simple dialogue with our peers to initiate conversations about eating disorders. It’s a complete mindset change and I know for sure most of my aunties in India will scoff at the idea of me discussing how throwing up was an actual coping mechanism during a rather awful time in my life.
But I do have hope. When I told my physician, who is Indian, that I needed to do a physical examination for my program, she looked relieved. The same goes with my close extended family who were wondering where I have disappeared the past two months. They all echoed the same sentiment: they had a feeling there was something “up” but they didn’t have the words to describe it. Nonetheless they were happy I got help.
Perhaps that’s not the same thing as an intervention, but at least they care. And in our community where mental health and personal issues are told through forbidden tears and hushed conversations, empathy can bridge the gaping emotional hole between our generations. The elixir of high self-worth that many South Asian women have been searching for has been in front of their eyes, yet they never had the privilege to use it – it is the freedom to be vulnerable. Maybe it can now be the secret to helping the generations after us.