The Enemy and Me

by Crystal Iyaji Ogar

CW: eating disorders, bulimia, anorexia, vomiting

I never thought I had a problem. I started drinking at 21 and by now (31) I figured I had the hang of it. I hadn’t done it ages so it wasn’t really an issue right? The “it” I’m referring to is vomiting. On a drug fueled Denver night spilling confessions with two of my closest friends we started talking about eating disorders.

As a darker skinned black girl my body developed quicker than most – both due to my race and my girlhood. Womyn tend to mature faster, but are still children, although not seen as such. My grandma would always tell me – “whatever you do – don’t get fat.” As if nothing else I did mattered, only the way my body looked. I always found that odd, but ended up internalizing it in so many ways. And on top of that the white gaze which made my body an enemy, but also something to be poached; of course not of my own volition.

I’d thought of “it” as a disordered way of eating and NOT an eating disorder. I would restrict myself from eating more than two meals a day so I could drink more alcohol and inevitably throw up after eating the alfredo pasta my brother would always make. I tried to convince myself that I was throwing up and making myself throw up from the alcohol; I had gotten too drunk or it made my stomach hurt which was only the case some of the time. It had become commonplace and something I would hardly think about.

African-American womyn have a higher frequency of using laxatives/diuretics and also engage in binge eating (8%) and builmia (1%) at the same rates as white women do. (Strigel-Moore Study). Diuretics in addition to vomiting were something that I began to use as I got older. Only for when I feel “bloated” which is both a lie and a truth that I tell myself. Carolyn Coker Ross writes; “Problematic eating patterns may develop in response to stress, and existing eating disorders may be worsened by stress. African-American women are more likely than their white counterparts to experience poverty,3 a major, pervasive source of stress. They are also confronted with the stressors of racism and microaggressions. Black women are greatly affected by discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace,4 and they may have limited avenues for effective recourse. Disordered eating can arise in part as a way of coping with the stress of living and working day after day in unwelcoming, hostile environments.” (Ross, Carolyn Coker. “African-American Women and Eating Disorders: Depression, and the Strong Black Woman Archetype).

Hostile environments, racism, microagressions, homophobia, and stress were a large part of my childhood and when I started working at a retirement community discrimination in the workplace became apart of my adulthood. I felt out of control and unsafe in many areas of my life so what I could control was what I put into and removed from my body.

When I got the chance to speak on stage with the likes of Chelsea Clinton at 23 – the first thing my father and uncle (who are both overweight themselves) mentioned was how I had gotten bigger. Completely missing the words I was saying which were in fact about young womyn being empowered to change their world and the world at large. The one thing they pointed out while I spoke to hundreds in the Lincoln Center no less was that I had put on weight. Madeleine Albright had just sat down next to me and asked who I was before I stepped on stage. Were my new rolls distracting from the message or was that all that they could fathom, reducing me to just my body? Male gaze always looming even as I loudly denounced it.

Black girls and womyn are so often left out of numerous conversations and eating disorders and mental health are two of them. The stigma and trope of being a ‘strong black womyn’; “Black girls and womyn don’t feel pain the same way” and “aren’t dissatisfied with the way their bodies look as much as white womyn” and rhetoric of the like. Additionally I’m someone that suffers with anxiety and depression. Trauma that black womyn experience also plays a large role in disordered eating, which is something I’m not a stranger to even at this period in my life. I’ve only really started talking about eating disorders and my struggles with food this year. The stigmas around black people and mental health are pervasive, but as I’m growing older and learning to heal I want to break the silence and the cycle of present and intergenerational trauma.

Now that I’ve stopped drinking my appetite has increased and I’m not bingeing like I normally would after a night out. I’m now in an environment where I’m able to cook all different types of food and it’s something I really enjoy; I haven’t had that space in three years.

I’ve been looking back at a lot of pictures of myself when I was younger and noticing how inward and uncomfortable I often looked; the situation is much different now. I look and feel more confident and I’m not afraid to smile authentically. The body positivity movement was created by fat black womyn and it’s a movement that I’m so thankful for and owe so much to. As my body changes and my weight fluctuates I don’t see it as something I need to control as much as I used to. Like everything it’s a process; I do thank my body every morning for what it’s able to accomplish and how it has kept me safe even when I wasn’t conscious of it. This wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to put into words because I believe I was waiting a very long time to write it and I’m thankful to have the opportunity to do so.

If you’re a black person that suffers with an eating disorder and are looking for advice and help; know that when someone gains or loses weight it isn’t news, loving yourself in and of itself is a radical act, and you are not alone. I see you and I hear you.

And be sure to check out these resources on instagram: @therapyforblackgirls, @thebodyisnotanapology, @sonyareneetaylor @itsmekellieb @notoriouslydapper @mixedfatchick @mariedenee @iamjarijones @jazzmynejay @transfolxfightingeds

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Ross, Carolyn Coker. “African-American Women and Eating Disorders: Depression, and the Strong Black Woman Archetype.” Eating Disorders Review, 29 Sept. 2019, eatingdisordersreview.com/african-american-women-and-eating-disorders-depression-and-the-strong-black-woman-archetype/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1MCPqZvssI

Striegel-Moore, R. H., & Bulik, C. M. (2007). Risk factors for eating disorders. American Psychologist, 62(3), 181–198. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.181