It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which means Twitter is deluged with more articles, videos and images about eating disorders than usual. Unchanged, however, is that much of the content shared neither centers on nor even includes the experience, perspective or struggle of Latinas. But guess what? Many Latinas are dealing with disordered eating, and it’s a problem that is increasing in our community.
Here are 10 facts all of us should know about eating disorders:
1. Latinas have traditionally been left out of eating disorder research.
Latinas have been left out of eating disorder research.
While it may seem like common sense that eating disorders, like other mental illnesses, don’t discriminate based on race, cultural identity and immigration status, early researchers lacked such insight. As a result, Latinas and other women of color were left out of eating disorder research and studies, further perpetuating the myth that Latinas were immune to the disease and creating difficulties for sufferers of color to seek and obtain the help they needed.
2. Surprise: Latinas struggle with eating disorders.
Surprise: Latinas struggle with eating disorders.
Despite their erasure from initial research on the disease, new studies that do center on or include Latinas, which, while existent still remains small, document what many sufferers knew all along: Latinas do struggle with eating disorders and body image issues. In fact, one study shows that Latina teens actually report more body dissatisfaction than their white counterparts, while another one recognizes that Latinas suffer from eating disorders at rates comparable to or greater than non-Latinas.
3. The media does a pretty horrible job at reflecting this reality.
The media does a pretty horrible job at reflecting this reality.
Despite the increase in recent data validating the unfortunate fact that Latinas are among some of the highest numbers of sufferers of disordered eating, its representation in the media remains the domain of white, affluent teen girls. Though this may seem innocuous at first, considering that many new immigrants take to mainstream media to gain insight into their new country and understand where they fit into the nation, the dearth of Latina portrayals can and does translate to many that this isn’t an issue they need to worry about, preventing sufferers from identifying their illness and obtaining the help they need.
4. The most common diagnosis for Latinas is EDNOS.
The most common diagnosis for Latinas is EDNOS.
While countless Latinas struggle daily with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED), the most common diagnosis for Latinas is actually EDNOS (Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified). EDNOS is a term or category used to describe a variety of lesser-known forms of disordered eating. The symptoms and behaviors of people with EDNOS can mirror those with anorexia or bulimia, be a combination of the two or can be characterized as something completely atypical and unlike the more popular illnesses. While not discussed as much as anorexia, bulimia or even BED, EDNOS is a serious disease. In fact, EDNOS is both the most common and deadly eating disorder in the U.S.
5. Many Latina sufferers don’t idealize a waif-like body type.
Many Latina sufferers don’t idealize a waif-like body type.
First: Latinas, like others with anorexia, fear weight gain and obsess over thin figures. However, for many Latinas — especially those diagnosed with the catchall category EDNOS — the idealized body is one that is simultaneously thin and curvy.
6. The prevalence for eating disorders increase for each generation of Latinas in the US.
The prevalence for eating disorders increase for each generation of Latinas in the U.S.
Research shows that Latinas, who are more acculturated or assimilated into U.S. culture, are also more vulnerable to eating disorders. In a study on Cuban American women, researchers found that those who identify closely with their Cuban culture had less negative attitudes toward eating, providing them with a "protective factor in the development of eating disorders." Another study, which looked at second-generation Mexican-American women, found that this more acculturated group exhibited higher patterns for disordered eating. It must be noted, however, that eating disorders aren't exclusive to the U.S. and that many of our hermanas across Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean struggle in similar ways.
7. There is stigma in the Latino community around mental illness.
There is stigma in the Latino community around mental illness.
The shame that comes with talking about mental illness is felt across the U.S., but is heightened in the Latino community. Latinos often, though certainly not always, endorse the myth that mental illness is an ailment of white America and anyone who shows signs of ill mental health is weak. This, unsurprisingly, makes it difficult for Latinas with eating disorders to discuss their illness. Further, for help during crises, many Latinos seek refuge in family, their communities and churches, all of which often uphold this troubling and inaccurate outlook on mental illness, preventing thousands from receiving the professional care and treatment they may need.
8. Other barriers also exist that limit Latinas’ access to help.
Other barriers also exist that limit Latinas’ access to help.
Aside from stigma, Latinas face a serious lack of access to mental health services. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), Latinos "use mental-health services far less than other ethnic and racial groups." This can be attributed to various reasons, including the expense of residential treatment programs, and the fact that Latinos constitute the largest group of uninsured people in the U.S., as well as cultural and language barriers. “The lack of interpreters and bilingual professionals,” according to the APA, can also “interfere with appropriate evaluation, treatment, and emergency response.” These challenges are, of course, heightened for undocumented Latinas, who face restrictive legislation and policies that curb their access to health care.
9. There are alternatives to seeking help.
There are alternatives to seeking help.
Affording eating disorder treatment is hard — sometimes nearly impossible — depending on your income and immigration status. But there are alternatives to pocket-draining residential treatment programs that average at $30,000 a month. Often just an inquiry and application away, some treatment facilities do offer scholarships and grants. Teaching hospitals or mental health facilities, which often offer free services, might also be an option. Then there are support groups, on and offline, which exist to both help guide people in their search for assistance and act as an inexpensive and effective way to talk and help one another deal with the variety of concerns and challenges that come with disordered eating.
10. Latinas are creating a space online to talk openly about eating disorders and body image.
Latinas are creating a space online to talk openly about eating disorders and body image.
More and more Latinas are opening up about their eating disorder and recovery process online, creating a digital network of Latinas of various identities and stages offering conversation, storytelling, affirmations, and just confirmation that they’re not alone. Women of Color Recovery, a Tumblr blog designed by and for women of color, allows users to discuss mental illness, and what that looks and feels like for them, share stories, ask questions and seek advice. Adios Barbie is a Latina-founded and co-edited body image website regularly publishing content on eating disorders and size, and how that intersects with issues of race, gender, sexuality and ability. As a social media intern at Adios Barbie in 2013, I helped create a transnational Twitter conversation through the hashtag #AdiosED. The hashtag, which is used by people of various races, ethnicities and identities, has particularly been harnessed by women of color, who share their stories, everyday microaggressions, affirmations and offer support.