“Out of the closet: Being black, with an eating disorder”

“Out of the closet: Being black, with an eating disorder”

Stephanie Covington ArmstrongBy Stephanie Covington-Armstrong, USA

When I relapsed at 36 years old, with bulimia after fourteen years of abstinence, a recovery that I had stopped making a priority due to the stresses of managing a career and a family, I was not surprised. For the year preceding my fall back into bulimia I had stepped away from the things that kept me free from food and body obsession due to changes in my income. The therapy that had been a necessity on and off for years particularly in troubling times become a luxury item and for that reason I had no choice but to end it. As a freelancer I did not have a reliable insurance plan and could not find affordable therapy due to pre-existing medical conditions. The other free non-therapy group that had helped me in my early recovery no longer appealed to me because I knew that I needed more support. Once I relapsed I felt too embarrassed to admit that I had failed in my recovery mainly because I had lapsed back into believing I could do it on my own.

Isolation Buried Me
For a while I had done everything perfectly only to land back with my head hunched over a toilet and the shame of that led me into a deep depression. I really didn’t feel I had anywhere to go and so the isolation buried me. Truthfully I wasn’t willing to get the help I needed until one day I had a moment of clarity and opened up to my best friend who had not experienced an eating disorder but her sister had recently committed suicide after years of struggling with bulimia and depression. We were both black women isolated in our disease, outsiders in our own community but I didn’t want to die and so with my tail tucked between my legs once again I sought help for my eating disorder but I knew that I was rare.

The Burden in Being Different
In the black community eating disorders are closeted, rarely spoken about and the shame of falling outside the strong black woman archetype is enough of a burden to keep it hidden. In the twenty something years I have been involved in the eating disorder community I have met hundreds of black women just like me who would rather keep the disease closeted than embarrass their families and communities with their revelations. Food is the cornerstone of our relationships, the way we connect and show love to and with each other. It brings us joy. But for those of us suffering if it also our prison and so we eat, shoving down our feelings and fears choosing the less painful road, to suffer in silence.

Taboo to Take Our Problems Outside the Home
For years I believed that seeking mental health support was a form of betrayal of everything I had ever been taught. From an early age I knew it was taboo to take our problems outside the home and community but I also understood that as a lesser evil than sharing our personal business with Caucasians in mental health community. When I finally admitted to my family that I had begun to seek help for my bulimia they questioned if I were mentally challenged. I received no support for my decision to seek therapy from my family but many of my middle class and upper middle class black friends championed me in my journey. Some of my relatives suggested that instead of traditional therapy that I take my problems to church elders and to talk to the Lord. This helped me to understand how under educated my community was about eating disorders. Other than B.E.D. and compulsive overeating the number one eating disorder behavior in the black community is laxative abuse, associated with bulimia. Diet teas are sold world wide as weight loss miracles, with words like slim or skinny emblazoned on the box, but these teas are huge in the black communities. Most people drinking these teas have no idea that this is bulimia behavior or that regular use can cause medical issues. These problems expose a desperate need for eating disorder education in poor and minority communities to help raise awareness of eating disorders and how they affect us all.

Addressing Shame and Stigma in Minority Communities
As long as there is a stigma with seeking mental health support, a large cross section of minorities will always be underrepresented and therefore uneducated about how to get the help they need. In 2009, Michelle Goree, an economist at USC, released a controversial study https://news.usc.edu/30631/Report-Reveals-Surprising-Data-on-Bulimia/

In the study it stated that African-American girls are 50% more likely than their white counterparts to develop bulimia. In the study she also stated that girls from the lowest income bracket at 153 percent more likely to be bulimic than girls form the highest income bracket. Unfortunately there are still very few studies aimed at minority communities because we are rarely willing to expose our shame to strangers, coupled with a distrust of mental health professionals. In the past couple of years magazines specifically written by women of color for women of color have begun to address eating disorders in our community. I was just interviewed for the April 2016 issue of Ebony Magazine, about an article addressing Black women and eating disorders.

My hope is that World Eating Disorder Action Day will help raise awareness to those in my community and lessen the stigma and shame surrounding eating disorders. I also hope that by sharing my story other women and men of all races will feel able to seek recovery.

About Stephanie
Born and raised mostly in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NY, I began my career at the age of nineteen writing theater. Eventually I relocated to Los Angeles, and began writing magazine articles, screenplays and ghostwriting books. When I went into recovery I decided to write my memoir, Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, in order to bring a perspective that I found missing during my struggle. Since writing my story I have shared my experience at colleges, universities, conferences, and been featured in magazines, radio shows and on television. The need for diversity in the ED community has allowed me the opportunity to work with NEDA and other organizations committed to changing the stereotypes. Today, along with my writing career I am a wife, mother and stepmother to three teenage daughters. Helping to ensure that they are healthy happy young women means staying involved in the ED community so that others are able to get the help that they need.




Stephanie is a member of the first ever World Eating Disorders Action Day Steering Committee.

Join Stephanie in supporting World Eating Disorders Action Day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter @WorldEDDay and hashtag #WeDoAct, #WorldEDActionDay, @WorldEatingDisordersAction on Instagram and World Eating Disorders Action Day on Facebook.