When I was twelve years old, a relative gifted me a shirt that read, “I’m not fat, I’m fluffy!” Up until then, I never considered myself to be fat–or fluffy–but it soon became apparent to me that my family thought that I was at least one of those things. Soon after being told that I was fluffy, I began to notice that my thighs rubbed when I walked, my pockets poked out of my overfilled pants and that chichos would form when I sat down. “Oh, god,” I thought. “I’m not fluffy, I’m fat!”
Six years later, as I prepared myself for a fresh start in college, I resolved to kick-start my new life with a new, unfluffy body. During the second semester of my senior year of high school, I put myself on a diet. It started off simple enough—I replaced soda with water and exchanged chips for fresh fruit. However, by the time I entered college, my diet had turned into something much bigger, something much worse.
In my first semester of college, I experienced what I now know to be a disordered eating problem. I restricting my caloric intake to less than 1,000 calories a day and weighing myself morning, noon and night. It was unhealthy, it was scary, but it was working. I lost 25 pounds between September and December. I was thrilled! However, I was also very sick. I began to lose my hair in great clumps and became severely anemic. I even began to experience extreme vertigo, with one bout of dizziness ending with me falling face-first in the shower. When I admitted this to my friends, they delivered what would be the first of many intervention speeches. “You have an eating disorder,” they said. “I’m Puerto Rican,” I responded. “We don’t have eating disorders.” Boy was I wrong!
Though my perceived insusceptibility to eating disorders was misguided, the perception that minority women are immune to such disorders is still quite prevalent. The notion that women of color are not prone to disordered eating patterns has long been attributed to their cultural acceptance and praise of lager, curvier female bodies. However, as Latinos become the fastest-growing minority population in the United States, more studies regarding eating disorders are including Latinas’ experiences with the mental disorder.
In an article published on PBS.org, psychologists Marian Fitzgibbon and Melinda Stolley suggest that many more women of color suffer with eating disorders than research and society would have you believe. They share,
Research suggests that white and Latina women have similar attitudes about dieting and weight control. Further, prevalence studies of eating disorders indicate similar rates for white and Latina girls and women, particularly when considering bulimia and BED. As with African-Americans, it appears that eating disorders among Latinas may be related to acculturation. Thus, as Latina women attempt to conform to the majority culture, their values change to incorporate an emphasis on thinness, which places them at higher risk for bingeing, purging, and overly restrictive dieting.
Furthermore, the fact that these restrictive eating patterns and eating disorders continue to be seen as “a white thing”, increases the likelihood that Latinas and other minority women will continue to suffer with these issues in silence. Because my family and I couldn’t quite reconcile the label “eating disorder” with what I was going through, I suffered in silence for almost five years. Coming to terms with my eating disorder was almost more painful that the hunger pangs I endured for all of those years.
It has been five years since I came to terms with the fact that I had an eating disorder. In the years since, I’ve committed myself to pursuing a healthier lifestyle, often looking to my culture to maintain my new and improved body-image. These days, I make a conscious effort to find healthier, less greasy versions of my favorite Latin-inspired dishes and participate in a Latin-style dance class in an effort to reconnect with my body and my roots. But perhaps the biggest step I’ve taken in staying healthy has been talking about my struggle. Admitting that I had an eating disorder enables me to become a voice for the many Latinas who are still suffering with the disorder in silence. I want them to know that they are not alone and that they can recover.
Mujeres, remember: In giving your struggle a name, you give yourself a voice. Don’t suffer in silence. Speak up. Many of us are here to listen and help.
For more information about eating disorders visit The National Eating Disorders Association.