The Black and White of Eating Disorders

Article Contributed by Aisha Bell, BC-DMT, LCPC with Timberline Knolls

It is widely thought that eating disorders occur less frequently among black women due to a cultural difference regarding a physical ideal. This article explores how eating disorders manifest in the African American community vs. the white community.

The American media and society tell us that the white standard of beauty is that the thinner a woman is – the better. It is often thought that black women have a higher comfort level with their bodies, since the culture seems to value a more substantial body type. This is particularly noticeable in women in the spotlight; those high profile individuals who serve as trend leaders. Whereas the vast majority of white celebrities are impossibly thin, even seemingly mere moments after giving birth, their black counterparts appear extremely comfortable “in their own skin.” These women appear empowered, proud of their voluptuous, womanly bodies.

We often think black women have fewer eating disorders and we wonder what white women could perhaps glean from them, in order to adopt a more realistic and healthier body acceptance?

In reality, what is evident is that black women are underrepresented in eating disorder research. Therefore, it remains difficult to ascertain levels of anorexia and bulimia in this population.

The important concept is that both groups of women could probably benefit from a meeting somewhere in the middle. White women spend inordinate time and money on diets and weight-loss programs; not all of these women are anorexic, most are simply responding to the societal pressure to look a certain way. Although this preoccupation with thinness is excessive, the end result is that they are probably not obese. This is actually good because they will not be at risk for common killers such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, cardiac complications, etc.

Conversely, in the black community, where the ideal body type is larger, women often fall victim to Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Just as white women may cope with negative emotions or life struggles through restricting or bingeing and purging, black women may compulsively overeat. This places them at high risk for early death. And, because overeating is certainly not uncommon in this population, they don’t recognize that they have an eating disorder, no less, get help for this life-threatening disease.

Although data is sparse, there is one fascinating and thought-provoking reality. Evidently, as the young black female advances in class, whether educationally or socio-economically, she is more likely to become anorexic. Is this a conscious or unconscious desire to assimilate into the white culture? Is it a need to fit in by looking like everyone else? Or, is she now on the receiving end of the same societal pressure white women have experienced for years?

More research needs to be conducted regarding black women and eating disorders. Perhaps what is learned could help the millions of women across the board who struggle with body image issues and eating disorders throughout our country today.


Page Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on
December 9, 2013
Published on, Eating Disorder Help & Information