Eating Disorders Begin to Plague Black Teens

Star Jones and Oprah Winfrey embody the cultural tug-of-war faced by African-American teen girls. Recent studies indicate that they too are becoming more vulnerable to the cult of thinness and its accompanying health hazards.

Star Jones

(WOMENSENEWS)-Women of color are pulled between two body ideals: the ideal of extreme thinness in the dominant culture and the historic appreciation of fuller figures in communities of color.

This tug and pull is exemplified by two famous and respected African-American women: Star Jones and Oprah Winfrey.

In a 1999 cover story in Essence, Jones, a host 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 beauty standard of the dominant culture and that of communities that value larger women.

However, Winfrey's obeisance to the cult of thinness may be in fact more typical than what is commonly believed.

Until recently, the fascination with weight and its toll on teen-age women has been thought of primarily as a white, suburban problem.

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 become anorexic, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. The data are not broken down by race.

Evidence Growing That Black Teens Are Becoming More Vulnerable

Growing evidence indicates that African-American teen-agers may be falling prey to these disorders as well. Essence magazine commissioned its own eating disorder survey in 1994, based on the premise that black women had been effectively excluded from previous studies. Some 2,000 women responded, mostly from the magazine's middle-class audience. Clinical researchers analyzed the results and 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.

Diane Harris, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, argues, however, that community plays an important role in whether African-American teens are vulnerable to eating disorders. Harris says that 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.”

Harris adds that African-American women may become more vulnerable to eating disorders if their peer groups are composed of middle-class white teen-agers.

In her study, “Ethno-cultural Identity and Eating Disorders in Women of Color,” 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.” She added, “Middle-class African-American adolescents unfortunately tended to demonstrate eating disorders more than other African-American adolescents.”

The reason may be that women with larger bodies are more generally accepted in the black community or even appreciated, says Shannette Harris (no relation to Diane Harris), an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Rhode Island.

“Context is everything,” she said. “Black women are not particularly quick to be rewarded for being thin,” since there is no particularly great value placed on thinness in the African-American community. “Younger black girls are more likely to say they want to gain weight. What they choose often correlates to the body shape of their mother.”

Mashadi Matabane is a New York-based journalist.

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