If the story were left up to the Internet and pop culture, Black men and eating disorders are virtually nonexistent. While there are reports that claim eating disorders are less frequent in the Black American population, the usage of psychiatric services by the Black American community, and particularly Black men, is far less frequent than other racial demographics. Thus, many Black men’s eating disorders go unrecorded and unrecognized, but indeed, these diseases do not discriminate by racial lines.
Dr. Divya Kakaiya is a licensed psychologist that’s been treating eating disorders since 1985. In 2008, she was featured on NPR host Farai Chideya’s “News and Notes” to discuss Black Americans and eating disorders. When prompted by Chideya to discuss Black American men’s relationship to eating disorders, Kakaiya reflects upon her work and pop culture observations, stating, “Women of color, men of color, it’s the same. You know, I was looking at some magazines a couple of days ago and just looking at the oppression that men are starting to feel that women have felt for the last three or four decades in terms of only one particular body size is acceptable size, and with men too now they’re getting more and more messages that a six-pack has to be equated with sexual virility. And so even in my clinic now I’m starting to see more and more young men and men that come forward to seek help because actually the word is getting out there that this is not just a woman’s disease, and it’s not only a white woman’s disease; it’s a disease that affects all, across all sociocultural lines and across all ethnic lines.”
In the media, white women remain the face of eating disorders. Popular TV shows and movies often depict white female teenagers starving themselves or vomiting up food to achieve unrealistic body expectations influenced by the media. But as white female teenagers aren’t the only ones that consume media or feel influenced by the social acceptance of primarily one body type, thin, it’d be powerful to hear the stories of other racial and gender demographics impacted by these diseases.
Cyrus Webb, a Black American male, struggled with an eating disorder during his high school years and early twenties. As there are several obese relatives in his immediate family and his life was about being in the public, doing interviews, taking pictures, etcetera, he became obsessed with how he looked and how much he weighed. He confesses, “At the age of sixteen, I began taking laxatives and even Alka Seltzers to make myself go to the bathroom or vomit…it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realized that I had a deeper problem that had to be dealt with. And I did deal with it. I began to identify the things in my life that made me feel self-conscious, and realized that I had to be defined not by what I looked like but who I was.”
Today, Webb says that his diet and exercise regime are all about moderation. And when it comes to the attention placed on his looks, he realizes that he’s more important than simply appearance.
Dr. Barbara Kent Lawrence, author of The Hungry i, reaffirms Webb’s experience through her book, which explores male bulimia. According to J. Taylor and colleagues’ 2007 article in the Journal of Eating Disorders, 40% of people in US colleges who are bulimic are male, and since the publication of Lawrence’s first book, Bitter Ice, in 1999 and second book, The Hungry i, in 2010, the ratio of males to females in the U.S. population who are eating disordered has risen from one in twenty to one in four. Lawrence states, “Eating disorders affect people regardless of gender, age, sexual preference, ethnicity, economic condition, or culture. Black men and boys develop eating disorders, but because their families, schools, and even their physicians don’t expect them to have such an illness, they may not be accurately diagnosed and treated … There is little research on eating disorders in males, and almost none on Black males.”
Additionally, Kent cited from the same 2007 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders the first study of the “prevalence, age of onset, persistence and gender differences in eating disorders in a nationally representative sample of African-American and Caribbean Blacks.” While the preliminary findings can only be a suggestion for further study, researchers found “no gender differences in eating disorders among the adolescents” in the study, an equal number of boys and girls affected by eating disorders and that African-American boys developed eating disorders earlier than their Caribbean counterparts or adults. The study suggests that as “more Blacks feel pressure to assimilate with the dominant culture in America, the greater their risk for body-image dissatisfaction.”
Indubitably, culture plays a role in Black American men’s perceptions of body image and thus, their relationships to eating disorders. Regardless of limited research and media exposure, Black American men do suffer from these diseases due to both similar and distinct causes from their white counterparts. But until those stories are heard and given a wider platform, silence will continue to muffle the voices of black men struggling with eating disorders and desperately in need of consultation. If there is no discussion, progress is limited, so researchers, media outlets, friends, and family must take the initiative to tell these stories and elevate them to the public at large.
How many stories of Black men and eating disorders have you heard? Do you know a black man that’s been impacted by one of these diseases? Add to the conversation.