What does Black History Month mean to you?
Is it a time to celebrate the Black community and their countless achievements? A reminder of where we’ve been and where we have to go? Or a chance to stay accountable as an anti-racist nation?
Trick question. It’s obviously all of the above and so much more. But for us at Beat, Black History Month also means shining a light on the toxic stereotypes that affect Black people with eating disorders.
“But eating disorders only affect young white women?”
Not only is that categorically false, but it’s a dangerous misconception which can prevent Black people from recognising symptoms of an eating disorder – and some healthcare professionals from referring specialist treatment.
We know that early intervention is crucial to recovery from an eating disorder, and yet our research shows only 52% of people from minority ethnicities feel confident asking for help from healthcare professionals (vs 64% of white British people).
A recent report published by the House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights revealed four in five Black women don’t believe their health is equally protected by the NHS in contrast to their white counterparts.
These concerns are not unfounded
That same report showed Black women are five times more likely than white women to die during pregnancy. And in 2006, another study revealed some clinicians couldn’t spot the symptoms of an eating disorder in a Black patient, where they could in a white one.
Why oh why? Well, let me count the reasons.
For starters, there’s little to no research on eating disorders within the Black community. Anorexia may appear to be more prevalent among white people, but it’s impossible to know as prevalence within the Black community is under-reported.
What the limited research does show is Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit binge and purge behaviours (Goeree, Sovinsky, & Iorio, 2011). And a recent NHS report revealed that between 2017-2020, there was a 216% increase in the number of Black people admitted to hospital because of an eating disorder.
This reinforces that there’s little to no early intervention for Black people with eating disorders, so they end up in hospital when symptoms are at their most dangerous.
Okay, so what are we doing about it?
“It’s important that the needs of Black people are catered to in the eating disorder field. This includes investing in eating disorder specialists from a wide range of backgrounds, and ensuring that healthcare and educational staff are trained to detect eating disorder symptoms in people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.’'
– Tom Quinn, Director of External Affairs at Beat
As Tom said, proper training on eating disorders is essential (and that’s what we addressed last Eating Disorders Awareness Week). But to stop the sea of misconceptions that discourage Black people from getting early intervention, we’re also…
From incredible influencers like Shareefa J, to leading specialists in the eating disorder space like Dr Chukwuemeka Nwuba, Dr Sheryllin McNeil and Dr Karen Carberry - we want to share our platform with Black leaders who know their stuff. So follow them and spread the word so we can drown out toxic misconceptions and change the narrative.
We also want to amplify the voices of our Black community. So if you want to share your story, change perceptions and connect with others – we’re all ears.
Of course, representation matters. Just look at the huge impact Encanto, Soul and the upcoming Little Mermaid remake have had. If you don’t see it, you can’t be it - right?
Going through an eating disorder is hard enough without also feeling like the odd one out. Like there’s something wrong with you, because this doesn’t affect ‘other people like you’. That’s exactly what it’s like for Black people who only see white faces talking back to them about eating disorders.
So from our feed and resources to blog and fundraising activities, representation is one of our top priorities. We’re also collaborating with our friends at the Health Innovation Network, who recently published a paper on Improving Equalities in Eating Disorders: Race, cultural and religious awareness.
If we want to fight stereotypes, we have to start in our own backyard. So in 2021, we commissioned an external review on equality, diversity and inclusion at Beat. We wanted to know what we’re doing well as a charity, but more importantly, how we could do better.
Since then, we’ve created a project group dedicated entirely to implementing the report’s suggestions. Watch this space.
Of course, the work doesn’t stop at the end of October. Anti-racist allyship isn’t performative and it certainly doesn’t have an expiry date. We know there’s always more to be done.
If you have any suggestions or would like to share your stories – please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Together, we change lives.