"you know that this is a disease for rich white girls, right?": on eating disorders amongst girls of colour
by bayan atari
Recovery, though necessary and rewarding, can be incredibly lonely. Outside of a clinical environment, making sure you eat all your meals, dealing with the post-food anxiety when you can’t overcompensate for eating, and coping with stress without the crutch of eating disordered behaviors to hold onto, are not exactly experiences to which everyone around you will be able to relate. The experience of having an eating disorder in the first place is an alienating one, and actually trying to heal is even lonelier. Lonelier still is suffering from an eating disorder, in recovery or not, when you don’t fit the typical image of a sufferer: the middle-to-upper-class white teenage cis girl, willowy and pale, the picture of white suburban sickness.
And while that white suburban sickness is painful to those who fit in that box, those of us who don’t are often left to suffer in complete isolation. Take women of color, for example. A lot of us are so insulated, living on our tiny planets where every wall is a mirror, but no mirror shows our reflection. Instead, we get that image again — that white suburban image. “You know that this is a disease for rich white girls, right?” Those are my mother’s words. Those might be countless other mothers’ words, for all I know. They are definitely the thoughts of many; indeed, mental illness is portrayed as a white ailment, particularly eating disorders. How many women of color were in that Renfrew documentary, Thin? How many depressed fictional characters are women of color? Not to downplay the film’s merit, but Girl, Interrupted is more like White Girl, Interrupted. In stories of mental illness, people of color are often background fixtures, or completely absent.
Flashback to sixteen year-old me, four weeks into my first stint in residential eating disorder treatment, phone to my ear, listening to it ringing and praying for an answer. At that moment, I was the only person of color in the adolescent ward. Every once in a while, another brown girl would check in, try her luck with her insurance and her inner demons, and disappear as suddenly as she arrived — usually due to her insurance company deciding that she is “too healthy” for treatment.
I loved all the other girls around me, of course; we were like sisters, almost. There were only a few parts of my story that absolutely no one else could relate to, and they were all inextricably linked to my cultural background. My family dynamic was something that played into my eating disorder quite heavily, but no one could understand it. I talked about my family in group therapy, and everyone (therapists included) simply questioned why I didn’t just leave. “You can go when you’re eighteen,” they said. “You just have to make it two more years.”
But, as a friend and I discussed years later, that’s just not the way it works in a lot of cultures — including mine. In the treatment environment, I stuck out like a sore thumb with my “ethnic” features (playing a guessing game as to my ethnicity was a favorite pastime among my friends in treatment, though I don’t even think that they even noticed; “Pakistinian” was my favorite guess, and by “my favorite” I mean “the most infuriating”) and in the fact that I came from a background with which no one could even begin to comprehend. I had to walk on eggshells when discussing my family’s borderline fundamentalism when it comes to religion, lest everyone around me go home with the idea that Islam was the harmful presence in my household, and not the harmful behavior that my parents exhibited while wrongfully claiming Islam as their justification.
I would call another girl “beautiful” and she would, with good intentions and an unfortunate lack of understanding, respond by calling me “exotic”. Therapists saw me as a cultural experiment — “my first middle eastern patient”/”my first muslim patient” was how a few therapists sometimes referred to me. I came to the conclusion that it my mother was right, that this must be a white girl’s disease, and that I was among a handful of aberrant brown girls who had somehow developed it in a sick twist of fate. It didn’t occur to me that stigma keeps so many people of color silent about their issues, or that I had a fortunate combination of financial privilege and a general physician who had somehow convinced my parents to put me in treatment.
I had grown desperate. I needed camaraderie from someone who could somehow relate. And that was how I ended up on the adolescent ward’s phone that day, praying that my friend Ana would pick up. I’d met her in the ninth grade, when she herself was fresh out of residential treatment for anorexia; she was a warm, empathetic chicana girl who had been very open with me about her illness, even though I refused to admit to myself that I even had eating issues at the time. We had fallen out of touch since I was forced to transfer schools in the tenth grade, but when she picked up the phone, it was as if we had never been apart. I spilled everything to her, my voice shaky. I just wanted to know that someone else had been through the same thing, that someone else knew. And she did.
Immediately after that conversation, I felt both comforted and in awe of the universe. Each residential facility has its own list of items that incoming residents aren’t allowed to bring, and at this treatment center, cell phones were on that list — so I didn’t have any of my contacts on hand, save for those that I had scribbled into my journal the day before my admission into treatment. It makes no sense that I had written down Ana’s number, as we’d fallen out of touch; but I guess some cosmic force guided my hand in writing that number down, or maybe I just known, on some level, that I would need to talk to her eventually.
Along with cell phones, shaving razors weren’t allowed at the facility, either, at least not without supervision. For those who weren’t considered “at risk” if given a sharp object, nurses distributed razors, which would be returned to the nurse’s station within an hour or two, early in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I myself was restricted from shaving during most of my stay (six out of seven weeks, I believe), a fact that caused me immense discomfort at first. My body hair, dark and thick as it often is for women of color, had been the first marker of an adolescence that I had tried for years to shake off. At eight years old, I was wearing training bras and going through tubes of Nair as desperately as if it were a weapon I could use to stave off the pubescent beast which had overcome my body.
A few days after that phone conversation, I wore shorts for the first time since childhood. Years prior, I’d gotten into the habit of always covering my legs, even when they were hairless. I carried my shame all over my body, worried that if people saw my bare arms or legs, they would somehow know that I’d matured early. But on that day, I borrowed a pair of shorts from my roommate and wore them without a care in the world, leg hair and all. A few girls seemed shocked at first, but I laughed it off, and they laughed with me.
Later that day, I wrote a letter to my childhood self. I told her I was sorry for hating her so much, for hiding my growing body purely out of shame, for bullying her so viciously and for growing up to deprive her of the food she needed to be her full, energetic, clear-headed, ambitious self. I reminded her that food has nothing to do with power, nothing to do with control, and that I would change nothing for the better by hurting myself. I realized that it wasn’t too long ago that I was this little girl that I was writing to; I was still so young, and would be for quite a while. At that time, my master plan was to disappear by the age of eighteen, but for the first time in years, I reconsidered that plan.
My eighteenth year, when it did finally come around, became the year I chose to live. Going into college, I had a relapse in the midst of a recovery I’d begun only a year prior, and once again, I needed to confide in someone. A friend who lived a few doors down from my dorm room had previously told me about her own eating disorder. She, like me, came from a Muslim family built by immigrant parents. Unlike me, she was in a stable recovery. One day, I went to her room and told her everything — she understood everything I was saying — and told her that I wanted to live in spite of that. She reminded me that power is not in the refusal of sustenance, but in the refusal to let my demons get the best of me. My sense of catharsis following that conversation was practically surreal. I promised myself I’d live up to my full potential, and with that, I defied my master plan of disappearance.
I’m nineteen years old as I write this, and disappearance is no longer in my plan. Instead, I have a long list of ambitions and accomplishments that nothing can stop me from achieving. Two weeks ago, I saw Ana, now an art student, for the first time in about a year. She showed me a video of her final project for a performance art class, in which she smashed the tiny clothes from her lowest weight, which she’d covered in plaster, all while handcuffed. Within the rubble, she found a key, unlocked her handcuffs, and broken down into a shaky fit of sobbing. She let me cry on her shoulder as I thanked her profusely for letting me see something so raw and cathartic, something that I’ve needed to see for years.
To all the people of color out there who are suffering: you are not the only one. You are not alone. I promise. We are capable of being ill, and we are also capable of healing.
(screenshot from The Silences of the Palace)