Today’s media places a high premium on thinness; and in the western world, we are inundated by weight loss ads, a continual stream of diet fads and an unrealistic image of women’s bodies. However, until the 1950s, extremely thin women weren’t considered as attractive as plump, curvy women.
Conversely, at least 30 million women in the United States are affected by various eating disorders, and two-thirds are women. Although eating disorders afflict primarily females, it is not a disease of only affluent white women. Eating disorders and weight issues affect people of all races and ethnicities.
The National Eating Disorders Association notes that eating disorders are prevalent among Hispanics, Asians and African-American women. While women with a strong cultural identity haven’t been as susceptible to eating disorders, the quest for a thin body is becoming increasingly important in women of color.
Unfortunately, even the medical community continues to operate under the misconception that eating disorders affect young, white women of privilege. As a result, problems affecting lower- and middle-class women and women of color often go untreated and unreported, which contributes to the misconception that they aren’t affected by eating disorders as frequently as white women.
Eating Disorders in Ethnic Communities
Eating disorders and weight issues aren’t always easily understood in ethnic communities, especially in families that have long lived in poverty. For example, young people may be shamed into eating, even when they’re full, and food is sometimes used to comfort children. Eventually, children lose their natural ability to rely on bodily cues to tell them when they are full or hungry.
Historically, the African American culture has been more accepting of larger body types, and the belief that black women are more comfortable with plumper bodies still exists. However, as black women accept the dominant cultural norms of white women, they become more susceptible to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.
More Research is needed
In recent years, eating disorders have become more prevalent in non-western countries, including the Middle-East and China. Most think this is a result of the powerful western influence and the media’s pervasive and distorted images of women. It’s also important to keep in mind that like white women, women of color are affected not only by cultural issues, but also by genetic, cultural and environmental stresses that affect body image.
Although eating disorders affect all ethnicities and demographics, research has been limited largely to western white women. While eating disorders are complex and triggers associated with overeating may be cultural, it isn’t enough to study the affliction in the context of a select group while ignoring eating disorders among the broader global population.
Clinicians, researchers and educators must begin by changing their way of thinking. Effective research and treatment of eating disorders requires an awareness of the factors affecting all populations – not only cultural factors, and not solely issues impacting upper-class western white women.
You might also be interested to watch this TED-talk about race-based medicine.