Earlier today, I had the opportunity to talk to Stephanie Covington Armstrong, the author of Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat. This memoir chronicles her troubled relationship with food, resulting in a long struggle with bulimia. Her book flies in the face of the “rich white girl” eating disorder stereotype to show that poverty and repression are not only not mitigators but actually triggers for such disorders.
Near the beginning of your memoir, you describe the period you spent in foster care as “the moment I began a lifetime of hungering” (4). How does recovery satisfy this hunger in a lasting way? How can you feel this need without a quick fix of bulimia or otherwise?
As a parent, I’ve learned that in the first few years, you need nurturing. The belief that your needs will be met is important. I needed a parent, and I needed consistency in those fragile years. Now, I have amazing tools and a community. I’ve learned the difference between hunger for food and hunger for comfort. It’s like learning a baby’s different cries.
Eating disorder sufferers seem to live in a paradoxical state of extreme desire for food versus the desire to not want anything, which you describe, “I did not want to want anything, especially something that could be snatched away like my sense of self and safety” (53). How and why do you think this fear of our own precariousness becomes misplaced onto food?
I think it stems from a lack of control. All eating disorders are a way to avoid the exact same feelings. Whether you starve or eat, you are creating a disconnect. Whether fear of intimacy, fear of connection, etc. you create a barrier so you don’t need to fear because you don’t have to connect anymore. It all comes down to being able to feel your feelings or not.
You mention your desire for complete independence saying, “I wanted to conquer the world by myself” (87). What role did the desire for complete independence play in your eating disorder? How do you relearn trust, especially with the ever-present risk of getting hurt?
I relearned trust, in part, because I was willing to try anything. I had used up every other option. So then I wound up in a community of like-minded people who lent me their faith. I’d see them succeed and I’d ask how they did it and they’d say, “when you’re struggling, call me.” I had to build trust in the community, they were there to hold me up.
An important aspect of your story is that it flies in the face of our mainstream eating disorder stereotypes. Reading your memoir, direct links between your underprivileged childhood and the onset of your bulimia appear. And as your memoir’s title indicates, you also shatter the misconception of eating disorders as a “white girl problem.” What barriers make recovery particularly difficult for people under the poverty line and for the black community?
There was a study done by the University of Southern California in 2009, that found, by surveying 2,300 school-aged girls in California, Washington, Ohio and D.C., that African American girls were 53 percent more likely to suffer from bulimia than white girls. Further, girls studied who were from below the poverty line were 153 percent more likely to be bulimic.
I think this is because we don’t trust the mental health community. Those who are higher on the socio-economic ladder are the ones more likely to seek help. So some of it definitely comes from a combination of less trust and less access. Also, there is a strong black woman archetype. You’re supposed to fulfill a legacy of suffering in silence. You don’t want to stress anyone out with your problems.
What recovery advice would you give to eating disorder sufferers in general, but also particularly for members of the black community or those struggling financially?
You need a deeper understanding of food and your body. You need to fall in love with the body you have. Otherwise, you’re just a hamster on a wheel, never reaching the body you so badly want to obtain. None of the things your eating disorder tells you are true. Ask yourself,
“is the magical thing I’m waiting for true? What am I eating for then?”
You deserve to get better but there is no shortcut. Trust me, I’ve tried them all. It’s not just about food anymore. Your eating disorder is a placeholder. It’s natural to be afraid. But you owe it to yourself to get to the bottom of this. Give yourself permission. It’s a lot of work. Join free support groups. Find yourself a community.
Stephanie Covington Armstrong is the author of Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, her story of bulimia. She is a writer, speaker, wife, mother, survivor, and advocate for healing trauma and relationships with food. You can learn more about her work here.