Eating disorders are stereotypically considered to be reserved solely for white, middle-class, teenage girls. Whilst this stereotype has been challenged in terms of the inaccuracy of the latter two points (eating disorders can, and do, effect people of any class and any gender), something that is less openly discussed is the former point also being incredibly inaccurate (eating disorders are not exclusive to one ethnicity, they can affect anyone.) To do my bit to help combat the, what can only be described as subliminal racism in the field of eating disorders then, I have decided to dedicate todays post to highlighting the issue, in the hope that it brings such inaccuracies to light.
So, where does the idea that eating disorders only effect Caucasian individuals actually come from? Well, much like the longstanding idea that eating disorders only effect teenage girls of a middle-class background, it largely comes from inaccurate portrayals of eating disorder sufferers in the media…
People watch films and read books and case studies/interviews whereby the eating disorder sufferer is always presented in the same way (same age, gender, social class, and ethnicity.) People who therefore have no personal experience with an eating disorder presume that, based on what they see in the media, (an over-representation of eating disorders in people of a Caucasian background, and an under-representation of people from Black and Asian backgrounds), only certain people can be affected by the illness. Now, of course people who do have experience with eating disorders, or even just basic knowledge into them, know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s like saying that only certain people can be affected by cancer. Illnesses, whether mental or physical, do not ‘pick and choose’ who to ‘target’- they can affect anyone and everyone.
Despite eating disorders affecting people of all ethnicities, as indicated above, there are, however, still an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of white people diagnosed with eating disorders compared to black people, for example. This is likely due to people who look different to the stereotypical portrayal of an eating disorder sufferer refraining from seeking help, perhaps due to fearing that they won’t be taken seriously as a result of the extremely limited representation of eating disorder sufferers in the media.
The fact that fewer people of colour are diagnosed with eating disorders then isn’t because fewer people of colour have eating disorders, but is because fewer people of colour are prepared to open up about their experiences. It is for this reason why it is paramount that we, as a society, show greater diversity in terms of who can be affected by eating disorders in the media, whether that be via TV shows (e.g., soaps, films, etc.), or literature (e.g., auto-biographies, fiction & non-fiction books, etc.) Doing so will help, not just those people who personally struggle with eating disorders, but also society as a whole, as we will all be better educated into who can be affected by eating disorders (everyone), and therefore, in turn, we will also all be able to show greater compassion to everyone (something which I’m sure all of us want to do.)