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Eating disorders in the Latina community



By: Hannah de Groot, MEd.


Close your eyes and envision who comes to mind when you picture a person with an eating disorder. What does that person look like? For most of my life, the person I envisioned matched the images you’d get with a quick Google search - a young, white woman in body that looks very malnourished. For years, I imagined that the only way to actually have an eating disorder would be to look like that woman. To have an eating disorder, a person had to be white, to be young, to have a very low weight and to be a woman. As I became devoted to the mental health field and passionate about eating disorder recovery, I learned how tragically wrong I was. While most eating disorder research and recovery tractics center that woman described above, nearly every demographic shows some prevalence of disordered eating tendencies. In today's blog post, I am going to focus on eating disorders in women of color. Specifically, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 - October 15, I am going to dive into eating disorders in the Latina community.


Before I begin, it is first important to acknowledge that my experiences as a white person, both as a previous ED-client and a current clinician, are vastly different from experiences of people from marginalized backgrounds. The biases that I held about who could be impacted by eating disorders are unfortunately a direct reflection of the representation of marginalized groups in research and media. Marginalized groups are underrepresented in mental health research as a whole, and ever more so in research pertaining to eating disorders. With the emergence of better representation in the field and the blatant need for diversity, attention to minorities in this space is on the rise. Until then, it is my duty to acknowledge the unearned privileges the color of my skin has given me in my personal recovery and professional journey.


Despite the assumption that eating disorders only impact white women, research has proven that women from all backgrounds have been impacted by eating disorders, and that Latinas face eating disorders more commonly than most providers realize. A 2002 study examined eating patterns and weight loss behaviors in middle schoolers and high schoolers in Minnesota. Compared to their white counterparts, Latinas reported equal or more concerning eating behaviors, and a higher prevalence of binge eating disorder (Neumark-Sztainer, 2002). The same study found higher rates of chronic dieting in Latina adolescents compared to their white counterparts. This was confirmed in a similar study conducted in 2005, which also found that Latinas reported higher rates of lost periods, but lower rates of BMIs below 18 when compared to the white sample (Granillo, Jones-Rodriguez, & Carvajal, 2005). As you can see, eating disorders and related tendencies are much more common than prior research reflects.


Latinas face increased risk factors that impact the likelihood of developing an eating disorder. As we know, stress is directly related to the development and severity of eating disorders; as stress increases, so does the likelihood of developing eating disorder tendencies. In addition to the stressors that white Americans face, Latinas may feel compounded pressure to assimilate to American culture and values. We all know that American society idealizes thinness and is obsessed with measuring worth through appearance. Individuals from Latinx backgrounds may face internal conflict when moving to the United States and confronting values and beliefs different from their own. For example, family meals are highly valued in Latinx culture. Upon moving to the United States, individuals may feel conflicted between enjoying meal times with family members, or restricting to fit the ideal body type glorified in American culture. Furthermore, diet culture often demonizes ethnic foods, further stripping individuals away from their roots.


Unfortunately, Latinas also face greater barriers to receiving treatment. Mental health is stigmatized in the Latinx community, which may serve as a barrier to receiving care. As reflected in many cultures, women are often expected to be caretakers and serve others before taking care of themselves. Self care is a necessity, not a luxury. Neglecting to take care of oneself impairs ability to show up and provide for others. Furthermore, the wage gap serves as a devastating barrier to finding affordable care. In 2019, Latinas earned just 55% of what the non-Hispanic white male was paid (https://www.aauw.org/resources/article/latinas-and-the-pay-gap/). This drastic difference in pay is due to multiple factors including inaccessible education, unaffordable childcare and systemic racism in the workplace. The wage gap, in addition to the broken healthcare and insurance system in place in the United States, serve as major barriers to quality mental health and eating disorder treatment.


As a provider for individuals with eating disorders, I vow to be culturally sensitive in crafting my treatment plans and to view my clients from a culturally-competent lens. It is my moral and ethical duty to provide my clients, regardless of their cultural background, with the highest-quality support I can offer. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, concerns or feedback, and know you are not alone in your recovery journey. For additional help, I’ve provided some awesome resources below:



Podcasts

Body Justice

Rebel Eaters Club

Diet Culture Demonizes Cultural Foods from The F*uck It Podcast




Citations

https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/identifying-eating-disorders-latinas-racial-ethnic-bias-care/

https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/causes-for-eating-disorder-minorities/