RH Web Exclusives : Eating Disorders Don’t Discriminate - by Kellee Terrell

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April 16, 2009

Eating Disorders Don’t Discriminate

by Kellee Terrell

Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders are a growing problem among African-American women and girls. RH chatted with University of Southern California professor Michelle Goeree, whose new study found that black girls are 50 percent more likely than their white counterparts to develop bulimia.

For years, most Americans believed that eating disorders only targeted The Gossip Girl-type crowd: upper-class white girls. People felt that women of color, especially black women and girls, were immune to these types of disorders, characterized by obsessive negative thoughts and feelings about body weight and food, refusal to eat, binging and purging (bulimia) and excessive exercise.

Over the years, cultural myths perpetuated false beliefs, such as black women cannot be victims, they never suffer from low self-esteem and they love their figures because African Americans in general appreciate a more voluptuous body. Unfortunately, these biases affect how some scientific work is conducted—who is included and who is overlooked when researchers investigate how eating disorders affect all people.

During the past decade, however, researchers have done more studies to discover if there is a link between eating disorders and women of color. The new information counters what we once thought—black women do suffer from eating disorders at higher rates than past studies showed, but not as high as white women. Nevertheless, it is a growing problem.

This past March, University of Southern California economics professor Michelle Goeree released the results to her study about bulimia; they were shocking. By analyzing data from a 10-year survey of more than 2,300 girls from schools in California, Ohio and Washington, DC, Goeree and fellow economists John Ham of the University of Maryland and Daniela Iorio of Universitat de Autònoma Barcelona found that black girls are 50 percent more likely to develop bulimia than their white counterparts. They also found that black girls in low-income brackets are 153 times more likely to develop bulimia than African-American girls who live in the highest-income bracket.

RH spoke to Goeree to get to the bottom of her groundbreaking report.

What was your team originally researching?

We were interested in looking at whether bulimia was habit-forming and were there any addictive elements to the behavior. This is important because, right now, eating disorders are labeled as mental disorders—they are really expensive to treat. From a policy standpoint, if bulimia was perceived an addiction, there’s the possibility of federally funded programs to ensure that more people would get treatment. We found that there are habit-forming aspects of bulimia, indicating that it’s an addiction, but more work needs to be done. In addition, we discovered that black girls were 50 percent more likely to develop eating disorders than [their white counterparts].

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