It’s not everyday you get to sit down and have an honest chat about mental health, racial inequality and racial inequality. But today, I was lucky enough to speak about all three.
As a Helpline Advisor at Beat, today's interviewee (who has chosen to remain anonymous) has unique insights into our callers’ mindsets, experiences and needs. But she also has personal experience of ARFID. And as a Black woman, she knows too well what it’s like to battle against toxic stereotypes that tell us ‘only white women get eating disorders’.
So if you read one thing today, let it be this.
Let’s dive straight in. What’s your relationship with food like?
I would definitely say it’s mixed. I have my ‘safe foods’ that I can manage pretty much whenever, but I have other foods that I need to avoid if I’ve had a stressful day or am feeling overwhelmed.
In the same way that eating safe foods can be a real comfort, eating other foods when I’m in a strained emotional state makes my skin crawl. Sometimes it’s textural. Sometimes it’s a temperature issue. And sometimes it’s configuration (my greatest enemy is tapas, lots of small foods pretending to be one big meal. I see you, tapas.)
Whatever the reason, it always leaves me feeling nauseous, on edge, and struggling to think about anything else until I can get home and “reset” by eating some plain pasta or toast — regardless of whether I’m full or not.
Has it gotten easier over time?
As I’ve got older I’ve been able to gradually introduce more foods, and I would say I have a fairly diverse diet now. But it’s still within those parameters. I particularly notice it if I’m away overnight and can’t just make my own food — and yes I’ve been known to take a jar of marmite when I stay somewhere overnight…
Not a bad idea actually! So when did you first realise you had ARFID?
I was actually doing prep work for my interview with Beat! Came across ARFID on the website and thought, hmm, that doesn’t sound like an eating disorder — that just sounds like typical eating.
Turns out it’s not!
Really glad to hear you had access to that information. Have you had a formal diagnosis or any treatment since?
No formal diagnosis, and no treatment. I’m fortunate enough these days to have people around me who get it, and I’ve had all the check-ups to make sure my diet is balanced and healthy. So formal diagnosis and treatment didn’t feel like the right route for me.
It sounds like your family is really supportive. Had anyone noticed something might be up?
I don’t think I or my family had any idea that it might be an eating disorder. When you think of eating disorders, it’s things like anorexia and bulimia that immediately spring to mind. And the discourse on eating disorders is often around losing weight.
So when you have something like ARFID, which is less understood and isn’t associated with body image issues, I’m not sure ‘eating disorder’ crosses your mind. On top of that, I was diagnosed with autism a few years back – so I think we just considered it another symptom of that, rather than an issue in its own right.
That’s actually very common! What was it like at home for you?
I don’t think it affected my family too much. My Mum has had a difficult relationship with food for most of her life, as has one of my sisters, so I don’t think my eating patterns stuck out too much.
I was so lucky to grow up with a mum who just seemed to get it, and never tried to force me into eating things that I couldn’t manage.
What about the outside world?
That was trickier. I still remember crying and picking my way through difficult meals as a kid in someone else’s house. I’d try to eat while fighting the urge to throw the food back up, because an adult had told me to eat that food or nothing at all.
For years some adults in my life treated me as though I was unintelligent, because of my less varied diet. They’d talk about me and my upbringing to others as though I was a rescue dog who they’d ‘saved’ from poor conditions by pushing difficult foods on me.
I’m so sorry, that sounds really demoralising. Were your friends better?
Well spending time with friends could be tricky, too, because I always dreaded having to make excuses about where the group wanted to go for lunch — or what we were having for dinner at a sleepover.
I tried to make plans that didn’t run over my lunch and dinner times, and withdrew from staying overnight at other people’s houses.
At uni I lived in catered accommodation (not the best choice, in retrospect), so I often ended up skipping meals because I couldn’t stomach the food they made.
This, compounded with all the other anxieties of starting uni and living away from home, led to me eating less and less and barely leaving my room. Eventually, after spending a couple of days on nothing but custard creams, my now-husband intervened with support, understanding and a tuna panini.
He sounds like a good egg. Is it easier now that uni’s behind you?
Well thankfully, now that I'm an adult and working from home, a lot of these things are so much more manageable for me.
Do you think our culture had any part to play in this?
I do feel the judgemental and self-congratulatory behaviour of the adults in my life – just the specific adults that I mentioned earlier – gave off a very ‘white saviourism’ vibe. And it didn’t limit itself to opinions on my eating.
My eating patterns were just another signal that I was ‘beneath’ the white, middle to upper-class bracket that these adults occupied, alongside my dyed afro hair, my mum having a working-class job, my unfamiliarity with upper-class airs and graces, and my lack of interest in performing a character who would better meet their standards.
You mentioned growing up in a predominantly white area and feeling ‘different’. How did that affect your body image and identity?
Dysmorphia is something I’ve struggled with – it’s not something I’ve seen people talk about, but as a teenager I would almost forget that I didn’t look like everyone else around me. To the extent that sometimes I’d look in the mirror and be momentarily shocked not to see a white face and straight hair.
If you’d asked me when I was a kid what I would give up to magically become white, I’d have said, anything. Thankfully that’s changed now, and I do love who I am, how I look, and what my background is.
Sometimes I still have a moment when I see a video of myself and realise how stereotypically Afro-Caribbean my figure has become, as opposed to the more stereotypically white proportions that I used to see in my head. But it’s becoming more and more something that I love about the way I look.
It seems like you’ve found your power now. But back then, what would’ve helped you feel less singled out?
Sometimes I wonder how different it might have been to be a teenager now. I can get products for my hair pretty much anywhere, rather than having to get the bus half an hour and go to a special shop. I see people who look like me in campaigns and photos and TV shows everywhere. I have more than two foundation colours to choose from.
That’s not to say that teenagers have it easy now – just that representation is so important, because without it we can be made to feel as though an ideal or typical world doesn’t include people who look like us or come from our backgrounds.
It’s important for people who are part of the ethnic majority to see and understand the positives of a diverse culture, too.
Do you think the media has a part to play in all this?
Before I’d started learning more about eating disorders, my first thought on the topic would have been Kate Moss, anorexia, presented as either glamorous or tragic depending on what angle the media was going for.
I still think you see a lot of jokes and content on TV that make the connection between anorexia and living a glamorous, successful, white-upper-class lifestyle. So you don’t necessarily imagine that someone outside that bubble could be suffering with those same issues.
I also think that conditions that can’t be made to fit this “glamorous” trope — like binge eating disorder, ARFID, rumination disorder, or night eating syndrome — won’t necessarily be featured by the media. So that lack of understanding continues unchallenged.
There’s quite a negative discourse in this country around children being “fussy eaters”. I’ve known a lot of parents to be concerned about being “too soft” on their kids when it comes to food – seemingly through some fear that their kids will grow up into spoilt dictators because they weren’t forced to have broccoli that one time.
Of course, there is a serious distinction between disliking foods and having ARFID, but hopefully as awareness of this disorder increases, more adults will consider that support and understanding might be the better route to take.
So how can we better support people who don’t fit the eating disorder stereotype?
More research! There needs to be more research on how eating disorders manifest and present in the black community – and as people of this community are more likely to suffer less diagnosable disorders like binge eating disorder, bulimia, and ARFID, it would benefit everyone from those communities too.
There are currently no NICE guidelines for ARFID support due to lack of evidence-based research, which means that someone with ARFID doesn’t have the same support that people with other eating disorders have.
We also need to make sure that training for those in positions of support makes clear that eating disorders don’t discriminate. They affect people of all different shapes and forms and doctors can minimise encouraging or building on stereotypes.
This is particularly important due to the general lack of trust that ethnic minority groups already have in the healthcare system – one visit to a service provider who doesn’t believe that Black women can get anorexia, for example, could be enough to put someone off accessing support at all.
You’re right, and the stats back it up. One last question from me: do you have any role models that help you drown out all of the noise?
For body positivity, it’s got to be Lizzo!
Seeing someone so unapologetically proud of who they are and how they look despite not conforming to typical Western beauty standards, as well as giving a platform to larger black dancers who might not be booked by other artists, has been amazing.
There are so many myths about appearance out there, including the idea that how we look is intrinsic to our value as a person. So it’s good to have someone who’s out there cutting through the noise by shouting up about loving yourself!
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
If this story resonates with you, please know that our Helplines are open 365 days a year. Call us to speak to a trained advisor and get the support you deserve.