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Black Women and Hidden Eating Disorders: Letting Go of Trauma and Embracing Black and Embodied Learning

Black Women and Hidden Eating Disorders: Letting Go of Trauma and Embracing Black and Embodied Learning

Alishia McCullough (she, her) is a millennial licensed clinical mental health therapist and national certified counselor currently residing in North Carolina. She is a co-founder of the #AmplifyMelanatedVoices movement and founder of the Holistic Black Healing Collective. Her work has been featured by Target, Bustle, Popsugar, and Teen Vogue. BGN spoke with McCullough via Zoom about her important work.

How did you decide to focus on how Black women connect to food?

My grandmother had cancer, but before her doctors did any tests around cancer they advised her to lose weight. I saw it happening over and over again in my family. I wondered, “Why is the weight always the focus? What else is happening and what other issues are they not focusing on?” No one seemed to be asking these questions. So in grad school, I focused on eating disorders. When I started my practice. I saw most of the women diagnosed with eating disorders who were coming to me were white. I knew Black women were experiencing the same symptoms, but weren’t included. So, I started an eating disorder group for Black women. 

Why are so many eating disorders overlooked in Black communities?

First, the research is not there. Within the eating disorders field, a majority of the research has been focused on thin white women. Black women aren’t seeing ourselves in the eating disorders field, so we think we don’t have that. Second, some of the behaviors that we are engaging with eating disorders have become normalized in our communities. Black women have higher rates of anxiety, stress, and depression. We deal with historical trauma and intergenerational trauma. The women in my support groups were trying to cope through undernourishment, eating past full, or obsessing around controlling their weight with extreme diets, overexercising, or fasting. 

Attending your online panel about religious trauma, white supremacy, and eating disorders was eye-opening. What inspired you to look at the intersection of religion, white supremacy, and eating disorders?

They have many similar patterns. Within Christianity, there’s this idea that you’re striving to be this perfect human being, which is “God” right? We think about values within white supremacy, how you have to be this pure moral person who they have deemed as white. With eating disorders, there’s this idea that you’re striving towards thinness as the perfect body, having a “clean diet” or having “good food.” Perfectionism connects these three, and they feed off of each other. We talked about people in pulpits sometimes dictating what women are supposed to eat. Even interpretations of the Bible have instructions on diet. All point to systems used to control instead of keeping us connected to our liberation and intuitive knowing around food.

Alishia McCullough
Alishia McCullough

One comment from the chat during the panel that I wrote down was, “The church still blames one woman choosing to eat for all of humanity’s woes.” That was deep.

Yes, I remember that share. So powerful.

What is “fat phobia,” and how does it fit into our conversation?

The fear of being fat. Fat phobia affects people across the spectrum. Larger bodied people can experience internalized fat phobia, where they are repulsed by themselves and perhaps say fat phobic comments, and also people who are thinner can experience fat phobia, where they might think they’re fat and they try extreme behaviors to try to avoid gaining weight. 

Essentially it’s the fear of fatness which mostly shows up in Black communities in “healthism,” which is this obsession with health. A lot of times our community knows we’re labeled as having high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. When we go to the doctors, they already assume these things about us. Because of the medical discrimination we face, we try everything we can to lower those rates and be away from those labels. Nobody wants to have high blood pressure, but it’s only being viewed through this one lens of, “If y’all didn’t eat the way you do, you wouldn’t have these medical issues.” Fat phobia comes into play when medical professionals make these assumptions. Why don’t they first look at how all of the forms of trauma that the Black body experiences here in America, creating fertile ground for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes? A lot of our community is afraid to be fat because we associate fatness with bad health. We don’t want those labels, and we don’t want to continue to feed into that stereotype.

How is fat phobia different than ortherxia?

Orthorexia is an obsession with clean eating, healthy food, portioning food, and over-exercising to the point of distress. It’s the inability to give ourselves flexibility or grace. 

What are some of the pathways of liberation Black women can take to our eating disorders?

Recognize your relationship to food. Notice if it feels almost like a fight. Are you in opposition to your body? If so, look for a therapist you can relate to, like a Black therapist, who deals with eating disorders to help you achieve peace. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, you can find support groups of Black women with eating disorders run by community groups. Practice working with your intuition as well. The answers you seek are already there inside yourself. Mindfulness, quieting the mind, and checking in with ourselves is a powerful tool as well. Really listen to your inner voice that tells you what you really are hungry for.

Alishia is motivated to increase access and create spaces for Black, Indigenous, and queer people and people of color to come together and heal holistically in an environment that is culturally inclusive. 

If you think you may be dealing with an eating disorder, here are some valuable resources to consider:

Support group, Sage and Spoon for Black Folks: https://www.nalgonapositivitypride.com/sage-and-spoon

Join Alishia for Part 2 Religious Trauma, White Supremacy, and Eating Disorders: https://www.nalgonapositivitypride.com/events/religious-trauma-white-supremacy-eating-disorders-online-panel-part-2

Injected Fatphobia in Black Communities Panel: https://alishia-mccullough-s-school.teachable.com/p/healing-injected-fatphobia-in-black-communities/?preview=logged_out

Website: blackandembodied.com Alishia is also an independent published author of the book Blossoming. (https://www.amazon.com/Blossoming-Alishia-Renee-McCullough/dp/0692169512

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