How anti-Blackness fuels my eating disorder
I have to reject what white supremacy has told me since childhood in favor of the counter-narratives of powerful Black femmes.
*Content Note: Discussion of eating disorders*
By Gloria Oladipo
I don’t know when my eating disorder began and I don’t know when it will end. An accurate metaphor would be a leech: a black, tarish leach that, under closer inspection, is just a jumble of anxiety, depression, germaphobia, and fear foods. Eating disorders take and do not give. They steal your voice and your light, leaving you hollow and desperate—wandering the world for ways to manually stomp out your pain.
My eating disorder is both straightforward—it follows a clear set of diagnostic criteria—and it’s not. A complicated web of genetics, self-hate, and circumstance that has transformed my life through sickness and recovery. Even though the “why” of my eating disorder is still mystifying to me, I know that anti-Blackness was involved in negatively shaping how I saw myself, convincing me I needed to change my body to feel accepted and safe. I know that anti-Blackness, a structure that permeates through the world and in my life, was a huge factor.
I know from childhood I was “extremely interested” in food. I spearheaded all attempts at grocery shopping in the family, mandating what could and couldn’t be in the cart (carrots are a “yes,” Twinkies are an obvious “no”). I obsessively hoarded fitness pamphlets from the doctor’s office. I was a perfectionist, obsessed with grades and rules, a typical personality trait for eating disorder patients.
In addition to the inner pressures I put on myself, my world—family, friends, and adult mentors—kept telling me I was fat, that I needed to change. My nickname in childhood was “long throat,” summarizing what my family perceived as an insatiable appetite. At family parties, aunts and uncles would police my consumption, making comments on second helpings and food choices. I remember the particular boldness of a relative who asked an eight-year-old me if I was pregnant (“No? Then why is your belly so big?”). In a vacuum based on my upbringings and personality “quirks,” my disordered eating was somewhat inevitable, I guess. But this does not erase the role anti-Blackness played in my illness, but rather emphasizes what I was up against.
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As Black women, we are taught that the world does not value us. Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and Nia Wilson gave us lessons with their lives that we are disposable, that our deaths are drops in anti-Blackness’s ocean. There are 75,000 Black girls and women missing. Where the fuck are they and who the fuck is looking? What am I supposed to think when a small village of Black femmes disappears and it’s nobody’s problem? How do I not feel disposable and threatened?
As a dark-skinned Black woman specifically, anti-Blackness also tells me that I am ugly. I am told that my hair is too nappy, my skin is too dark. I watch the narratives of white women be uplifted and valued while I am essentialized to some tired trope of brokenness. I am told, both socially and “scientifically,” that I will always be seen as ugly. Don’t compete for a partner when everyone already has much “better” choices (with a competition framing being problematic in of itself). Opportunities will be barred for you because you don’t look “right.”
Ultimately, eating disorders are just another coping mechanism—like abusing drugs and alcohol. I used my eating disorder to cope with everything happening internally and also to find solace in a world that tells me I am worthless. I felt presented with two choices: finding escape or finding inclusion. My eating disorder took care of both. It helped me escape from feelings of insecurity at my own value, from paranoia that I could be murdered and no one would care. Constantly shrinking and adjusting my body was taxing and consuming, but a welcome distraction.
Changing my body was also a way of trying to gain inclusion within white supremacy. If I can’t be white, at least I will fit one of their beauty standards with my thinness. White supremacy told me that if I could reach a number on the scale or have the “correct” measurements, I could be valuable, even as a Black woman. I could be safe and my life would have more meaning.
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Beating this disease has had to include unflinching investigations of anti-Blackness. I have to reject what white supremacy has told me since childhood in favor of the counter-narratives of powerful Black femmes. Yes, I have worth. Yes, I deserve safety and kindness. Beauty is subjective, and even though white supremacy defines it in this world, I can affirm it in myself. This is what fighting an eating disorder looks like when you are Black.
Fighting an eating disorder is not race neutral. Recovery does not exist in a vacuum of eating, therapy, and crying (then repeat). It is the active re-interpretation of what it means to be a Black woman and how beautiful, powerful, and magical that can be. The journey for me has been non-linear. There are good and bad days with food, and different treatments to process this challenge. Sometimes, I still take what white supremacy tells me about myself as truth, but I have begun to question it and other messages that I am told about myself. I have immersed myself in spaces where I feel loved and cared for, where my identity as a Black woman is celebrated. I have made a habit of talking to people that “get” it—whether that be other eating disorder patients or Black women who understand how undervalued we are by this world. I allow myself to feel validated and supported by them and return the favor when possible. Actively inviting these forms of kindness, solidarity, and support in my life has made this process much easier and rewarding.
*If you or a loved one is struggling with disorder eating, please contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or visit www.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman from Chicago, IL. She is currently a sophomore at Cornell University. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find her on Instagram @glorels