An interview with Becky Thompson, who studies women’s eating and body problems from a multicultural perspective.
BY Ophira Edut
Is the face of eating disorders only white and middle class? Not even close, according to Becky Thompson, a professor of African-American studies and sociology. Thompson is the author of “A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems” (University of Minnesota Press, 1997). The book culminates her unique research, based on eighteen multiracial women’s struggles with anorexia, bulimia, dieting and compulsive eating.
Thompson’s subjects are African American, white, biracial, Latina and Jewish; their classes and sexual orientations vary. The link? They’ve grown up with a variety of stresses–racism, homophobia, sexism and abuse–which Thompson pinpoints as the true catalysts of many body problems.
Why do you use the term “eating problems” instead of “eating disorders?”
BT: Racism, poverty, homophobia or the stress of acculturation from immigration–those are the disorders. Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating are very orderly, sane responses to those disorders. So that’s why I don’t even use the word “disorder.” I’m shifting the focus away from the notion of eating problems as pathology, and instead labeling forms of discrimination as pathological. I even thought for a while that I should say “eating issues.” But I ended up using the term because eating problems do become problems for women. So why the shroud of silence? Shame makes it especially difficult for women who don’t fit the “profile” to speak up and seek help. For many women, healing from body problems goes hand-in-hand with finding a solid racial, sexual, or personal identity.
What about perceptions that eating problems are linked to vanity and appearance, rather than to trauma?
BT: It’s perfectly acceptable for a woman at a lunch table to say something like, “God, I really want to lose five pounds,” or “My dress doesn’t fit right,” or “I want to go to the gym so I can look better.” It’s not nearly as acceptable for that same woman to sit at a table and say, “I got beat up last night,” or “I’m really worried about my son on the street.” We need to figure out a way to have the real conversations with each other, and to make those as acceptable as ones about bodies and dieting.
One thing I found really interesting was that you used the term “body consciousness” rather than “body image.”
BT: I would never have known to be critical of the concept of body image until I was talking to an African-American woman named Jocelyn, and she described her body image as “just ashes up in the air….” It hit me that I had to start way back and not assume that women are “in their bodies” to begin with. For women who’ve been traumatized, issues of embodiment aren’t anything to take for granted. I had to look at whether they felt comfortable residing in their bodies, or just in part of their bodies; whether they considered their bodies a friend or an enemy; whether their bodies felt like safe places to be. These are things people who haven’t been traumatized don’t consider: If you’re used to your home being in one place, it won’t dawn on you what it’s like to be homeless.
How strong is the link between trauma and eating problems?
BT: In my study, I sought a community sample—everyday women who were working three jobs, holding half the world up. It’s not like I interviewed women who’d been hospitalized. The women I talked to were community leaders, professionals, mothers, artists. They were knock-down-drag-out, amazing women—and the level of trauma in their lives was shocking. That left me to wonder what level of trauma so many marginalized women are living through in a day-to-day way that’s just become like the air they breathe. I find that really troubling. I had no idea I’d find that depth of violence in the lives of the women I interviewed. And at the same time, they were very inspiring in their ingenious and methodical ways of healing. Really creative! The negative thing is that none of them got professional help from people who had background in eating problems.
Body consciousness includes weight, height, skin color, hair texture, facial structure. All of these things go into how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, and the kind of power we’re granted in the world.”
Right. They went to Overeaters Anonymous, and that sort of thing, but they weren’t hospitalized.
BT: They weren’t treated, but they also avoided some of the stigmatizing aspects of a medical solution to eating problems. They didn’t get caught up with being restrained in an eating disorders clinic, or an inpatient clinic. They didn’t get pushed with drugs.
I like that you expand the definition of body consciousness beyond weight.
BT: The whole body image category came out of the fashion industry. I tried to think of body consciousness as something that had to do with weight, height, skin color, hair texture, facial structure. All of these things go into how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, and the kind of power we’re granted in the world. A lot of body literature is problematic because it ranks gender oppression as more severe than other kinds of oppression. That’s totally missing the mark. There’s a simultaneity of oppression–we don’t need to rank them, but we can recognize them all. Jocelyn felt like she couldn’t change her skin color or her hair texture, but she could change her body size. That was part of her thinking process, and the way she chose to protect herself while growing up. So it’s not possible to talk about body consciousness outside of colorism, or plain old racism.
Why did you pick a multiracial focus on body image?
BT: In the 1980s, I did workshops called Women’s Hunger and Feeding Ourselves, in university and community settings. I also worked at The Multicultural Project, which is a community-based, anti-racist, anti-oppression training center. Many of the people who came to these workshops fit the standard portrait-White, middle-class, heterosexual women. But a lot of the people who came didn’t fit that portrait-women of color, lesbians, and working-class women. A lot of people lump White women into one homogeneous group. You can’t do that. The White Christian women I talked to never would have addressed the issues of anti-Semitism and feeling like they didn’t fit in to mainstream American culture. Many Jewish women felt like they were getting hit with one thing after the next–if it wasn’t the shape of their bodies it was their noses. If it wasn’t their noses, it was their curly hair.
Why do you think there’s such a silence for women of color, lesbians and working-class women around this issue?
BT: In my situation, as a lesbian, when I first started to seek treatment for my own eating problems after ten years, I snuck to the support meetings. I thought that it would kind of sully my lesbian credentials. The notion of it being a heterosexual phenomenon made it harder in the ’80s for some lesbians to come forward, for fear that they would be seen as having internalized all those patriarchal standards, or weren’t “real lesbians.” I’m part of that same invisibility.
So it’s more of a taboo–as though you crumbled to the patriarchy?
BT: There’s a long history of scrutiny that Black women have needed to have because of racism within the health profession. Black women are regularly mistreated by the medical system and misunderstood by psychologists. There are also problems for African-American women who come from families where being big was considered positive in previous generations, and eating was a sign of celebration. To dare develop anorexia or bulimia is in a way to feel like you’re betraying your ancestors.
There’s a belief that Black women don’t develop anorexia and bulimia in the same proportions as white women. Is that a myth?
BT: There’s no reliable statistical analysis. We need a quantitative study that’s race- and class-sensitive. I don’t think it’s possible at this point to even say with any clarity whether anorexia and bulimia is more common among white women than among Black women. The level of secrecy would make that hard to measure.
Does that play into people’s feelings, that they have to protect the public image of their communities?
BT: In 1994, Essence surveyed its readers about overuse of laxatives, chronic use of diet pills, dieting and starvation. Then they compared the results with statistics from a 1984 Glamour survey of white readers. In every single category, Black women scored higher in terms of difficulties than white women did. Those statistics are very revealing. Eating problems often reflect trauma, and Black women face so many different kinds of trauma.
What were some of the biggest myths these women shattered?
BT: There’s a continued tendency in American culture to view healing as an individual process. The women in this book talk about healing as part of the body politic: If eating problems are a consequence of racism, sexism and homophobia, nothing less than revolution will do. The women in the book talk about healing through activism–through working at a battered women’s shelter, or a rape crisis hotline. Some of the Jewish women in the group put together a body image awareness group that met every three weeks for two years. They didn’t feel comfortable going to Overeaters Anonymous, because it’s so Christian-based. They wanted a self-help group that was “leaderful”, meaning everyone in the group led, instead of following one facilitator. That kind of creativity speaks to the collective process of justice work.
How can we begin making change?
BT: We’re living in an incredibly regressive, conservative time, so talking about issues of revolution can feel fraudulent. We need very specific and concrete coping strategies. One of the most valuable models is the National Black Women’s Health Project. They do self-help groups that are both about self-transformation and community-based politics. They’ve done these for over ten years, and go all over the country educating women on nutrition and issues of embodiment.
Would you say the answer is a combination of education and activism?
BT: It’s consciousness-raising that takes into account race and class. People also need to get uppity. We need to demand that treatment centers have multiracial sessions. One conference after the next has sessions on eating problems where everyone on the panel is White, and there’s a real taboo against being a professional who’s also had eating problems. It’s like if you’ve had eating problems, you somehow can’t speak to the issues as a professional. We need to get rid of those dichotomies. Healing is a profoundly communal affair.