Hello Beautiful People,
I’m back with the Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat series (check out Part One, Two, and Three.)
Today’s post is a conversation with the writing of three women: Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Stephanie Armstrong Covington author of Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat, and Becky W. Thompson’s A Hunger So Wide and So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems.
Sometimes when I want to talk about being a black woman who is healing her emotional eating issues, I feel a little like Dave Chapelle in Half Baked. You know that part where his character decides to go to rehab for weed and meets a crazed, coke-addicted Bob Saget:
Bob Saget: Marijuana is not a drug. I used to suck dick for coke.
Rehab patient: I seen him do it!
Bob Saget: Now that’s an addiction, man. You ever suck some dick for marijuana?
Yeah, sometimes I feel like that. Like with the assortment of ills that black Women face on the daily, I’m gonna make a big deal out of emotional eating and body image?
But, then, I remember that this is not my highest self talking or even a well-meaning balance toward empathy for other’s pain.
Nah, this voice is a virulent, parroting of patriarchal values which instruct me to rank pain and to always, always situate frivolous “women’s issues” at the very bottom. It is a voice steeped in meanness and denial.
This is not the voice which wants me to heal and be honest.
Eating is something we have to do to live. And for women, it can often become a deeply divisive and harmful act which we use to control our bodies from becoming too much. Food is social and in our country, usually widely available. It is therefore easy to self-abuse with.
Food becomes another mode of employing a steady degree of self-loathing, we eat foods that make us feel ill, we create highly rigid diets that take out all the pleasure of eating, we starve our bodies from what nutrients they actually need.
In a blog post, Stephanie Armstrong Covington, author of Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat writes,
“…As a child my mother explained my harsh realities, “You’re poor, you’re Black, and you’re a woman. You’ve got three strikes against you so don’t expect life to be easy. But she was wrong. My dark chocolate colored coating protected me from suspicion, judgment and the intervention I desperately needed. When I finally sought out mental health support my family was mortified. I had broken the one sacred covenant. Church was offered up as the only acceptable alternative. I had revealed my deepest secrets to strangers who did not look like me. I had relinquished my role as the strong Black woman archetype. Why couldn’t I suffer in silence? Or have more self-control? There was so much I needed to learn about my relationship with food. Instead of celebration and ceremony it became a weapon I used to shove down my shame and loathing. It took a long time to learn that I could not heal my relationship to food on my own. There was no diet that would work for me…”
Food, for me, was and sometimes still continues to be, a place where my shame of being too much, where my desire for comfort are the most salient.
Unlike Ms. Covington who mainly grew up in inner city Brooklyn, I was raised in a suburb made up mainly of Mexican and white people in Orange County, CA. My Nigerian parents had no real idea what it meant to grow up in a setting that was not a black majority.
When I think back on my youth: the desire to be a famous catwalk model in Milan, the tiny white girls I was surrounded by, the teasing from black guys in high school about looking African, it’s not difficult to see how my relationship with food became so fraught. I see why I carried so much shame about my deep attachment to sugar, why the binges occurred, and the resultant obsessiveness about diets and workouts.
It was all so damn confusing: Eating was supposed to be fun! All the commercials said so, including the Carl’s Jr. ones with lanky blondes somehow sexily chewing up a hamburger. I wanted to be skinny like Alek Wek. (When I wasn’t wanting to be built like J.Lo.)
At family parties, aunties would pinch my cheeks and with the sharp straightforwardness of the non-Westerner issue a loud, “Hannah, you’re getting FAT.” I was encouraged to eat jollof rice, red stew, fried rice, dodo and if I took a smaller helping an uncle would say I was showing off or trying to be white. You got admonished for being too skinny AND too chubby.
Curtailing my sugar intake felt scary in a way I deep down knew was not normal (sometimes when our junior high school Snack Shack was closed, the one that sold 3 Snickers for 99 cents, I’d get all panicky and almost about to cry…okay, sometimes I actually did.)
When I decided to seek help like Ms. Covington, I felt stupid, like any minute a trio consisting of Oprah, bell hooks, and Toni Morrisson would revoke my black girl card. And because I did not see Women and girls who looked like me talking about their struggles with eating, because I did not fall cleanly into the standards set forth for bulimia or anorexia, because I felt like I was a burden and “too much” already, because there were Bigger Things To Deal With As a Strong Black Woman, I mostly stayed silent. I kept my constant anxiousness about food to myself.
If no one else gave a shit, what right did I have to?
In an interview at Adios Barbie! Professor Becky W. Thompson offers this,
“…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…”
The deeper healing from harmful eating habits in my life is a reckoning with the actual problems: the daily assaults of racism and sexism, the emotional phobic nature of our society, the ways I had truly internalized that I was only important if I had the right kind of body, my deep-seated belief that I was bad, the way sugar offered a steady comfort I could find nowhere else.
Before, I saw myself as the problem: I had too little willpower, I was lazy, weak, the wrong kind of black girl.
Seeing words like those from Professor Thompson removed a thick veil, a veil that thought I was all alone, that I was irredeemable and broken.
I cannot divorce my eating habits from the issues of YM (an old school teen Magazine) I read like crazy and the MTV I devoured unconsciously as a teen. Or the way I felt unsafe in my body. How high fructose corn syrup made up for the sweetness missing from my actual life (but not really). The pressures to be a good African daughter. The kids at school who would ask pointed painful questions about my skin, hair, and lips. My model dreams. The want to be romantically desired by a certain type of brown or black boy. The vocal judgement from an Auntie about my belly.
Our eating habits do not exist in a vacuum.
“…This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us,” Roxane Gay writes.
This message from Gay is not solely about thinness.
Blanket assumptions are the worst BUT on a whole, black and brown communities usually have an appreciation for “thicker” bodies. Thick does not usually translate to fat but to a thin-waist-big-butt-and-boobs ideal.
I have no issues with the thickness but even this ideal can become associated with the “not taking up space” Gay speaks about.
Basing our self worth on an arbitrary cultural ideal (even if said ideal is “big”) and letting this ideal control our lives is still wanting to be small, for our lives become firmly attached to seeking external approval (a never ending contest) and disallow space for what actually is.
I long to live a life that isn’t pinched into smallness by the demands and tastes of unconscious men to take up less space in my actual body.
My relationship with food is a perfect barometer of how much I still believe in being small and pleasing.
How do we relearn how to eat with the intent to nurture and not to control? How do we let go of being pleasing and work on being pleased ourselves? What ideas about smallness and scarcity are fueling our relationship with food?
It starts with realizing you are not alone. Like, at all.
You do an inventory of your history. Was there trauma that you encountered that affected your relationship with food? Where you grew up. What messages you learned about eating. Your fears about your body—aesthetic and otherwise. The media you took in. The shame you held or currently hold.
You hold that desire to be small, to fit in, to be pleasing with as much compassion as you can. You are not weak for seeking love or validation the only way you could see fit.
There is real social and even economic capital in having a “a good body” in our society.
However, we have to look closely at the way eating is stifling our lives. Eating does not have to be a place of anxiety and turmoil. It doesn’t have to be exhausting or scary.
But, you may have to do some digging and some reckoning.
When that old shame of being too much and being the Weak Black Woman creep up on me (and they are stubborn little creepers let me tell you…), I breathe. I know there will be some people in my community who DO believe I am taking myself too seriously, that I am Dave Chapelle trying to get off the weed.
That’s okay. This is my life and what makes me feel more Whole is to shine a light in any area shadowed in shame.
And for me, this is definitely, definitely eating.
Dear one, if you are reading this and suffering or just fed up having a low-level dread of eating, do not be afraid or ashamed to seek professional help. To do all that you can within your means to heal. A wound is crying out for your attention; heed it.
You are not alone.
You are not broken.
You are not solely defined by how you eat.
You can heal.