The Black Family and Eating Disorders

Sunday, 02 May 2010 19:39 Written by  Shameka V. Robinson

Stephanie Covington Armstrong didn’t find out she had an eating disorder until she was out in the world and on her own. Not understanding the concept of how to cope with certain issues, she would eat because she felt it solved her stress and anxiety. She would vomit to hide how she felt about herself.

When Armstrong told her family about seeing a  therapist because of her issue with food, they asked her is she was crazy, and when she visited relatives in the South they would say, “just eat something” or “what’s wrong with you?”

In the black household, an eating disorder is a topic that is portrayed as a white family’s problem. Eating disorders, which are known as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, relate to extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues.

As a playwright, screenwriter and author of Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, Armstrong says that when she told her family she had bulimia, their response was: “getting help is only something people who are absolutely insane do.”

“I knew I had an eating disorder because I was throwing up because I didn’t want to be fat. And I thought, if I’m fat, any person walking down the street will look at me and know that something is wrong with me and that I’m not happy with myself and I don’t think I’m lovable.”

In the black family, eating disorders are not mentioned because the idea of a black person experiencing self-starvation and excessive weight loss can seem unreal.

According to the, eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life threatening consequences for females and males.

Armstrong believes that eating disorders are often non-existent in the black family and in the black community because we don’t know how to comfort or support one another with mental health issues.

“I believe that there’s not enough information about what an eating disorder is. Black families generally dismiss them; part of it is a lack of knowledge and we don’t talk about what’s really going on,” she says.

Dr. Pamela Thompson, a professional life coach and psychologist says, “In the clinical settings in which I have worked, the number one eating disorder for black women would be over-eating, which results in morbid obesity.”

Thompson says, “When someone in the black family is experiencing an eating disorder, the family as a whole becomes very irritable and the illness is the thing that is at the top of the hierarchy as oppose to anything else.”

“Unfortunately in the black community we don’t have enough social pressure and enough concern about morbid obesity and overeating because it is considered acceptable behavior, and by and large, we tend to be larger women,” she says.

Dr. Thompson estimates that the average black woman can weigh up to 250 pounds, and that images in the media and within the black family have allowed compulsive eating to be an acceptance.

“The images that we see within the media and within our family are of healthy, robust-size women, so there is a tendency to down play the illness of overeating and obesity which is detrimental to our longevity and our emotional and physical well-being,” she says.

“So physically, the family is not suffering from a black woman who is overeating other than in other social economic classes, where the mother may be ashamed of her daughter’s size, because she may be more slender and fit but her daughter is not. But by and large the family of an African-American woman who is obese is not suffering,” says Dr. Thompson.

Armstrong has interviewed many young women and girls experiencing an eating disorder. She feels that the family tends to feel ashamed; not wanting the public to know that they’re daughter is suffering from this type of disorder.

“Eating disorders are a form of depression, and it’s [eating] a way people deal with depression and damage. In the black household, issues are dealt with as if you’re supposed to automatically know how to deal with them or how to fix them,” she says.

Armstrong suggests that a support system be in place within the black family where the fundamentals of how to cope with mental health issues are taught.

“I think we need to give each other permission to seek help and support each other through things without expressing us all to be superhuman and we should be realistic,” she says.


For more information about Eating Disorders, view and check out Stephanie Covington Armstrong’s website


-Photography by GMO Photo Editor Billy Montgomery.

Shameka V. Robinson

Shameka V. Robinson

Shameka V. Robinson is an aspiring lifestyle writer and television host who graduated from Columbia College Chicago earning a Bachelor’s of Arts in Magazine Writing and Editing. As a staff writer for GlossMagazineOnline, she’s also written articles for Urban Influence Magazine and Currently, she’s a contributing writer for the online version of the Chicago Defender.

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Follow her on twitter: @thechicwriter