We believe that there must be space to tell the story of EVERY body and we are grateful to those who have shared their stories with us so that we might share them with you. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, there is help. You can reach the toll-free, confidential National Eating Disorders Association Helpline in the US at 1-800-931-2237. You are not alone.
I was 20 years old when I decided to tell my mom that I had been struggling with bulimia. Her eyes widened and she said, “Que… pero todo lo que tu crees y todo lo que haces…” (“What… but everything that you believe in and everything that you do.”)
My mom was referring to my feminist activism. Since my senior year in high school, I had become involved with feminist organizing, forming groups and events that focused on women’s empowerment and health. For my Jehovah’s Witness mom, feminism was an outlandish and extreme movement, but she nonetheless became familiar with feminism through my activism.
Her reaction was my biggest fear. I felt like a “hypocritical” feminist. Today, I understand the complexity of eating disorders and how they can impact anyone regardless of political ideology, but at the time, my mother’s reaction demonstrated something deeper. Her response was a clear example of how so many of us lack comprehensive eating disorder education.
My mom had adjusted to the idea that I could assimilate into feminism, a white American concept (in her mind), but she could not come to terms with me having an illness that can happen to anyone regardless of geographical region, gender identity, or ethnicity. My mother’s lack of suspicion about my eating disorder was not because I was a feminist, but because I was raised Jehovah’s Witness; I was brown and I was chubby. An eating disorder was simply an idea for which she had no context.
Dealing with an eating disorder is already a huge undertaking, but for a person with a marginalized identity, it can be doubly challenging. Discrimination has historically and systematically hindered us from having the same access to resources. Apart from sociopolitical inequality, marginalized cultures have their own complexities and challenges to deal with. Due to these disparities in information, education and resources, navigating an often complicated treatment and health care system is exhausting and difficult. Therefore, there is an urgent need for providers, families, and activists to offer space for marginalized voices in the eating disorder world.
Invisibility is Violence
Marginalized people are constantly left out of eating disorder conversations. When I was at my worst, I felt trapped and I stayed silent about my eating disorder. Not only was I ashamed, but I never saw anyone like me — a Xicana from a migrant working-class family –– talk about eating disorders.
I had no point of reference to feel included or acknowledged. I didn’t even have the language to express my feelings and thoughts about my body or my relationship with food because this language didn’t exist in my circles. The fact that my family and friends did not know what to say or how to support me only further proves that eating disorder education and representation is lacking in our communities. Having a lack of language to discuss and understand eating disorders, an absence of validation about our relationships with food, and being denied access to eating disorder treatment — all of that is violence.
When marginalized people’s experiences and bodies are not part of media, medical research, and advocacy efforts, we receive the message that our illnesses are invisible. Having our health issues regarded as non-existent means that the quality of our lives, our happiness, and sometimes the length of our lives are cut short. Ultimately, not having comprehensive health education on eating disorders becomes just another part of a long list of systemic oppressions we face.
More Radical Reads: Getting Honest About My Disordered Eating
Look for Who’s Struggling and Reach Out
For the past 30 years, eating disorder representation has been centered around the white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, able-bodied, pathologized experience. There is a lot of compensated work to be done! This narrative has left out tens of thousands of people. As a result, there is a real lack of research on the rates and levels of eating disorders in marginalized communities.
Eating disorders happen discreetly, in isolation, for many folks. Even when people demonstrate signs of having an eating disorder, it is left unaddressed because disordered eating has been normalized in our society and steeped in diet culture.
Eating disorders are deeply isolating experiences and they become even more isolating for folks of color because we do not see ourselves within the greater cultural understanding of eating disorders. Including folks with disabilities, people of all sizes, and people of different social classes within the narrative of eating disorders is a must if we ever hope to empower groups that have been ignored.
We Bring a Lot to the Table
Marginalized folks have so much to offer to heal communities. For the past 500 years, our communities have survived through resiliency and an ancestral knowledge that is unknown in corporate medical institutions. For example,the decolonization of medicine movement has been key for the perseverance and healing of Native American and indigenous communities. Something very powerful occurs when people create their own culturally relevant programs within their own communities.
One example is T-Ffed: Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders. T-Ffed has been instrumental in doing outreach within and advocating for the transgender community, a population with a high risk of developing eating disorders. T-Ffed offers a transgender cultural competency educational workshop for healthcare providers and community-based healing intensives for the LGBTQ community. Studies indicate that culturally relevant programs “lead to successful completion of therapy and ensure recovery.” Marginalized folks are creative and powerful, and we know what needs to be done for our healing. We are the experts of our lives.
More Radical Reads: Learning to Eat Despite Shame: Managing Masculinity at the Table
Our Work in the Body Positivity is Movement is Crucial
The type of work that marginalized folks offer in the body positivity movement is high-quality, unique, and valuable. Clear examples of this include The Mixed Fat Chick, Adios Barbie, Caleb Luna, Ashleigh Shackelford, and Sonya Renee Taylor offer powerful and much-needed critical analysis of the body-positive movement that validates many of our shared feelings and thoughts. Thick Dumpling Skin, a site for Asian Americans to share their experiences with diet and thin culture, is another excellent resources. Annie Segarra has also provided a platform to “give attention to body positive folx, women, LGBTQIA+, people of color, people of different sizes, and people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses, [and] mental illnesses.”
These sources illustrate how our work cannot be meaningfully replicated by anyone who has not been in our shoes.
This work is not only life-changing, but life-saving for many like myself.
It goes without saying that enough harm has already been done as a result of the widespread belief that eating disorders only impact white womxn. We can no longer afford to perpetuate this myth, particularly considering the fact that eating disorders are the deadliest mental health illness.
There are small, yet impactful steps that people can do to create space for marginalized folks with eating disorders. It can be as simple as talking to younger family members about eating disorders and letting them know that anyone can be affected by them. Supporting the work of those in marginalized communities and those doing eating disorder awareness groundwork is another good way to show support. For providers, here is a helpful checklist to ensure that all people are being included in your services. You can also check out and participate in the events that are happening in your area during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week each February.
Together, we can change the ways eating disorders are viewed. We have the power to make sure no one struggles alone.
Gloria Lucas is a brown chubby riot grrrl from Southern California who is currently involved with Nalgona Positivity Pride and the I am Not White and I Have an Eating Disorder Project. As an eating disorder (ED) survivor, her continual healing consists of providing comprehensive ED information that is relevant to communities of color. Her goal is to start conversations on decolonization, elders’ stories, and radical body love in all communities. Check out Gloria’s T’shirts at her Etsy store: https://www.etsy.com/listing/238942161/beat-eating-disorders-piggy-seafoam-t[Image Description: Photo of Gloria Lucas, founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride. She is a Xicana with light skin and dark brown hair that is pulled up into a bun with bangs. She wears black jeans and a mint green shirt that features an illustration of Miss Piggy. On the illustration reads “Beat Eating Disorders.” Standing in front of large hedges with one hand on her hip and the other at her side, she stares directly at the camera with a slight grin and her head titled up. Source: PainBrushHeart]