Monday, January 25, 2021

New Memoir: Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat

September 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Bulimia

notallblackgirls_finalStephanie Covington Armstrong, a recovered bulimic and an African-American woman, is the author of the new memoir, Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat.

A friend of mine heard her interview on NPR recently and passed it on to me, thinking it would be a great topic for this blog. I couldn’t agree more.

I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of Stephanie’s memoir, but I certainly intend to.

You know how they say never to judge a book by its cover? Well, in this case, the cover is compelling in and of itself.

While I’ve never experienced bulimia and don’t know a ton about the mechanics of the disease, apparently (according to this review I read) the image on the front cover of her memoir is of the index and middle fingers — the two fingers used to induce vomiting.

Rather than mess with NPR’s intro, here it is verbatim:

“I’m Korva Coleman, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we go behind closed doors. It’s the part of our program where we talk about issues that are often hidden from public view. Today’s segment was previously recorded by TELL ME MORE host Michel Martin. We hear a perspective on eating disorders but one that challenges a stereotype.

There’s a common perception that eating disorders are the exclusive domain of affluent white women and girls. Stephanie Covington Armstrong doesn’t fit that mold. She’s now a playwright, screenwriter and author living in Los Angeles, but she grew up one of three daughters of a struggling single mother. She also grew up binging, purging and using food as an outlet for her emotional pain.

Now, she’s decided to share her story with others who may not understand they’re also at risk of eating disorders. Her new book is called “Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat.” She recently talked about bulimia with TELL ME MORE host Michel Martin. Just a warning for sensitive listeners: Ms. Armstrong’s description of what led to her illness includes an experience of sexual assault. Michel Martin asked Stephanie Covington Armstrong about when her bulimia began.

You can read Stephanie’s compelling story or listen to the audio here.

Here are some snippets I pulled out of the transcript that I thought our community might be interested in delving into/discussing further.

When asked about support groups, Stephanie says, “You know, I was raised to not share my secrets with anybody but also not with a group of white people. That was like foreign and shameful and I just have this ancestry of strong black women who were able to get through anything. So here I am, you know, walking into these rooms of white people just basically on my knees emotionally, not able to function because the level of pain I had carried from childhood has swallowed me and I don’t know what to do. I don’t come from an environment where we go to therapy, where it’s okay to not be okay. And I walk in and everyone was white, and everyone seems to be okay. And it probably had a lot more to do with my projection, that they wouldn’t be able to understand me because I was black and ultimately, that’s what I discovered. But being vulnerable around a large group of white women is not where I come from. So, you know, I had a lot of shame around that, around needing this.”

This passage was also very powerful.

Martin (reporter): “It’s interesting, because you also talk about the fact that you had – one of your sisters, for example, was struggling with being battered, had married a man who was battering her. And you write that, you know, while Renee allowed a man to physically abuse her, I chose bulimia as if consciously choosing to abuse myself. I knew I would never allow another person, particularly a man, to treat me badly again. It would be years before I understood that my sister and I had simply chosen two different halves of the same whole in order to fix something broken within us. Do you think that that’s true of other women of color, for example, and why it is that we are so, we seem to be so fixed on this notion that eating disorders are not something that happen to women of color? It’s almost as if there’s certain forms of pain that we can tolerate and are willing to talk about but there are forms of pain that we’re not.”

Stephanie:Right. Because I think like, culturally, it’s been said and there have been studies done that black women like being heavier. So I think bulimia and eating disorders are looked on as, you know, wanting to be white, wanting to have the body like a white person. But what a lot of black people don’t understand is that addiction to laxative teas, that’s bulimia, over exercising, that’s bulimia, diuretics, that’s bulimia. Like, it’s not just binging and purging.”

And this:

Martin: “But if there is someone who’s listening to our conversation, who is perhaps of color, who does not recognize herself in the narrative -or even himself let’s say – in the narrative that they typically see about eating disorders, what’s your message to them, to him or her?”

Stephanie: “You’re not alone. You know, this disease is already isolating. Don’t allow your skin tone to make you feel more isolated. I have met hundreds of black women who are suffering. I get emails daily from people all over the country, so I know that you can get to the other side of this because I got to the other side of this. You deserve a happy life and you can, you know, learn to have your feelings and not use food.”

I’m very interested in reading Stephanie’s memoir, and I really, really love her message “Don’t allow your skin tone to make you feel more isolated.” The truth is, eating disorders can affect anyone … regardless of your skin tone.

I really hope her memoir helps open the doors for more dialogue about race and eating disorders in the future. Maybe we can kick things off here. And Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I’d love you to do a guest post here.

How about you? What do you think about race and eating disorders? Does a memoir like — a story such as Stephanie’s —  change any perceptions you have had? Does anyone have personal experience they would like to share — of themselves, a friend or family member?



10 Responses to “New Memoir: Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat”
  1. greenbunny78 says:

    sounds like an interesting read. I never felt like eating disorders discriminate- and I wish that people could get past certain barriers to recognize suffering, and not have to put a race or class label on it.

  2. lissa10279 says:

    I think that’s kind of the point of her memoir, greenbunny–that there IS discrimination of sorts, whether we want to believe it or not; many people think African-American women don’t have EDs, and she’s living proof that they can affect anyone. I agree that it would be nice if people could see past those barriers without labels … but I think raising awareness is important in this situation. EDs can truly affect anyone.

    • greenbunny78 says:

      I know- what I meant was that reading this didn’t give me personally any kind of lightbulb about it. Maybe because I had and ED, and new people of all walks of life in my boat? I can see where something like this would be useful or people who had no idea. But I wonder how likely it is that someone who never had an ED, or someone who has never known someone with one, would be to read this book and have their views changed on the subject?

  3. clairemysko says:

    I can’t wait to read this book. Thanks so much for posting the link to the interview. I wrote my Master’s thesis about eating disorders among African-American women after working at an eating disorders organization and finding that my outreach to non-white communities was woefully inadequate because so many in the field still bought into the myth that EDs are a “white girl’s issue.” Educational tools were incredibly limiting as a result. The fact that EDs have been defined as such makes it that much more shameful for women of color ot come forward. Many of them said they felt like they were selling out their race, which is exactly what Armstrong speaks to–and quite eloquently.

    Another big problem is with the methodology of researchers who have come up with these statistics that say eating disorders primarily affect white, middle-upper class women. Traditionally, they are mostly white researchers making conclusions drawn from diagnostic criteria that are based on white samples. In effect, the survey questions used by these researchers are often encoded with an implicit silencing of African American women’s (and other women of color) experiences.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Claire, your thesis sounds fascinating and I wonder if maybe you could share some of your findings here at some point? I know we have a multi-cultural readership, and it could be really eye-opening to see what you gleaned through your research. It seems like much more needs to be done…and maybe Stephanie’s memoir can get the conversation started.

  4. MizFit says:

    Heard her speak on NPR.

    She’s freakin amazing.

  5. missincognegro says:

    Ground-breaking. We often don’t associate Black women as having eating disorders. Should be an eye-opener for Black women.

  6. faith says:

    bulimia is rampant, period. the “white, upper/middle class” often got stigmatized with anorexia, and anorexia is often what gets noticed because it is more visible and it is what insurance companies and hospitals SEE and feel they NEED to treat. it is the bulimics that go unnoticed and suffer in isolationk pain, and hiding until it is often too late. they either die of eletroylte imabalance and sudden heart attack, suicide, or esophogeal eruption. it’s just the stuff people don’t wnat ot talk about. anorexia is the clean disease. bulimia is disgusting so we shove it under the rug.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Faith, those are some pretty powerful words and I think you really hit it on the head. You can often “see” anorexia, whereas bulimia … not so easily.

      My history with chewing/spitting was shameful for the same reason; it’s so “disgusting” and “gross” …

      Very compelling comments.

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