On Monday, Sept. 21, the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA) and the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) hosted a twitter chat regarding weight stigma in communities of color to kick off Weight Stigma Awareness Week 2015. The tweetchat guest, Dr. John Blackshear, is an Academic Dean for Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University and has considerable insight on weight stigma in these communities both through his academic career and in private practice.
The chat started by exploring commonly held myths regarding body image among persons of color (POCs) and African-Americans in particular. Dr. Blackshear noted that there is a widespread myth that POCs do not suffer from eating disorders. This myth is ‘explained’ by other myths that suggest POCs are less biased about ideal bodies and embrace curvier bodies, thus resulting in fewer body image issues or eating disorders. There is also the common myth that black men don’t suffer from either eating disorders or body image disturbance and that only gay black men care about how they look, which is exacerbated by media misrepresentation.
Dr. Blackshear then delved into the link between poverty and race and how those consequently affected body image and weight. He acknowledged that nutritional education and food deserts were the primary contributors to poor dietary choices that were made based on cost-effectiveness rather than health. Those issues could be combatted by increasing access to affordable nutrition counseling and regular physician wellness visits, as well as helping to implement a diverse and balanced nutritional plan that fits in with the individual’s budget and culture.
Culture is the other key piece to dietary choices among POCs. Among POCs, families help foster nutritional habits and body image ideas that impact life choices of others. Cultural norms about skin color, hair texture, body type and size, and acceptable food choices start playing a significant role as early as infancy, but become increasingly more powerful as the child ages. Family members pressing each other to continue eating when full may contribute to binge eating in these cultures as rejecting food could be seen as also a rejection of love and affection.
Pop culture also contributes to self-concepts and idealized body image among POCs. This culture glorifies hyper-sexualized African-American female bodies as a vessel of sexual exploitation. and results in more elective cosmetic surgery, such as implants. This also promotes and maintains the idea that women are only valuable if they are able to attain an ideal, thus distorting their relationship with their bodies, fitness, and nutrition to achieve that ideal. Early intervention to counteract popular culture imagery as a standard of beauty is essential to ensuring proper physical and mental development.
The tweetchat also addressed the intersection of stigma and discrimination related to race on weight stigma. Dr. Blackshear stated that both affect mental health, self esteem, and self care, which can result in maladaptive lifestyles and subsequently distorted body image ideals and standards. The issue of weight stigma preventing POCs from seeking medical care was also raised. It is important that POCs are encouraged to find counselors, medical professionals, support centers, mentors, and family to help deal with weight stigma so that it does not negatively impact their lives.
However, Dr. Blackshear acknowledged that there are multiple and considerable barriers to POCs seeking help specifically for eating disorders. These include cost, stigma, lack of understanding of both the disorders and how treatment might work. POCs also often resist help because they cannot find professionals that look like them. Dr. Blackshear noted that POCs often ask directly when scheduling an appointment at his office: “Is he Black?” Having a professional to help them who is racially and culturally similar can help make them feel at ease and more comfortable addressing difficult topics.
Although this connection is important, the main focus needs to be making POCs feel that they have a safe space to be vulnerable and obtain help. POCs have to “work across race lines when seeking treatment.” Dr. Blackshear noted that they must:
Choose by heart, not by sight.
The chat concluded by discussing other barriers for obtaining treatment for communities of color, such as POCs not understanding the treatment resources available. Breaking down these barriers and understanding the unique needs and experiences of POCs will be essential to eliminating weight stigma among this community and ensuring appropriate treatment for these individuals.