By Mashadi Matabane
Dr. Sharlene Hess-Biber calls it the "cult of thinness" in her book about the rituals and strategies of women in pursuit of the elusive beauty ideal: slim, trim, blond and white.
"The primary rituals are dieting and exercise," Hess-Biber, a psychology professor at Boston College, writes in her book Am I Thin Enough Yet? "with obsessive attention paid to monitoring progress - weighing the body at least once a day and constantly checking calories."
Everyone knows that at its most benign, the cult of thinness perpetuates the multi-million dollar diet, fitness, and cosmetic industries, and that at its most criminal, it has subjected young white women to disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and compulsive overeating.
Less well known is that women of color are falling victim to the same destructive behavior patterns -- starving themselves, bingeing and purging and overeating, especially as they begin to interact more frequently and closely with their white counterparts.
According to the National Eating Disorder Screening Program, 15 percent of all young women have substantially disordered eating behaviors. Of that number, some 2 to 3 percent develop bulimia and about 1 percent becomes anorexic. Of that 1 percent, most report the onset of the condition by the age of 20, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
Back in 1994, Essence magazine commissioned its own eating disorder survey, based on the premise that black women had been effectively excluded from previous studies. Some 2,000 women responded, most of whom represented the magazine's middle-class demographic. Clinical researchers concluded that African-American women were at risk for and suffer from eating disorders in at least the same proportions as white women.
Subsequent investigations bear this out. Ruth Striegel-Moore, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University, reached a similar conclusion in her recently published study "Recurrent Binge Eating in Black American Women." Although not particularly focused on the economic class of participants, Striegel-Moore found that black women experienced binge eating as much as white women, and were also more likely to abuse laxatives than white women.
A psychology professor at San Francisco State University, Diane Harris, noted the distinction many psychologists specializing in eating disorders make between eating disorders and eating disturbances, harmful patterns of eating represented by people "who only eat certain types of food, like for low carb, high protein diets, which are not nutritionally balanced or someone who is dieting continuously and in the dieting there's a great deal of self-starvation."
In her 1997 study "Ethno-cultural Identity and Eating Disorders in Women of Color," Diane Harris says she found that "women of color certainly appeared to demonstrate fewer symptoms of what is a traditional eating disorder, depending on how culturally tied they were to their communities." "Middle-class African-American adolescents unfortunately tended to demonstrate eating disorders more than other African-American adolescents," she said.
And so do upwardly mobile black women who may also take on negative indicators of middle-class influence along with the positive.
Harris said, "What they see is that skinniness is beautiful. That there is some value to having a certain body type -- one that is very restrictive, and almost impossible in some circumstances to obtain and maintain. The perception is that it makes you popular, attractive to significant others, people want to look like you, you may get ahead in a job. If you don't represent this certain image then you are not considered good enough, you're inadequate. You look different which can create a negative self-image."
Whereas, in the black community, there is generally more acceptance of women with larger bodies, said Shannette Harris (no relation to Diane Harris), an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Rhode Island.
"Context is everything," she said, and weight is less of an issue if everyone shares the same size or shape.
Said Shannette Harris: "Black women are not particularly quick to be rewarded for being thin," since there is no great value placed on skinniness in the African-American community. "Young black girls are more likely to say they want to gain weight. What they choose often correlates to the body shape of their mother."
She thinks it is the contact with white America that increases the probability that a young black woman will want to be thinner.
"How many larger black women do you see at the top?" she asked.
Just two: Star Jones and Oprah Winfrey.
In a 1999 cover story in Essence, Jones, who appears on ABC's "The View," said her body size is only an issue for those who try to make it one. Instead, she said, "I want little black girls out there to say, " 'I'm jammin, instead of buying into the negative images: "You're too loud. You're too dark. You're too fat.' "
Winfrey, on the other hand, has engaged in a long on-going public battle to slim down. In both responses, there's an inherent understanding that the beauty of black women is played out between the exclusive beauty standard of the wider culture and the more inclusive one in their own communities.
That's why Diane Harris says, "You really have to look at eating disturbances from a much broader perspective than just the individual."
According to Harris when young black women start "getting messages from varying places" about the way they should look, it can be hard for them to understand what to do. This can lead to an "ethno-cultural identity crisis," making them "more vulnerable to eating disturbances."
Betsy Levine is an eating disorder therapist in charge of outreach for the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia. When she sees adolescent patients, she says, especially anorexic African-Americans, she listens to "who they are and what issues are specific to them, like being black and what it's been like to grow up. Eating disorders are the tip of the iceberg that brings them to treatment. It's the presenting problem."
And for that reason, Diane Harris says for women of any color ultimately change is going to mean "striking a balance in developing a healthy sense of self, finding that middle ground where you feel good about yourself."
produced by Marilisa Racco
|For more information contact:
The American Anorexia and Bulimia Association
The Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
The National Eating Disorder Screening Program