Note: this is a cross-post I wrote over at WeAretheRealDeal.com today.
Stephanie Covington Armstrong, a recovered bulimic and an African-American woman, is the author of the new memoir, Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat.
A friend of mine heard her interview on NPR recently and passed it on to me, thinking it would be a great topic for this blog. I couldn’t agree more.
I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of Stephanie’s memoir, but I certainly intend to.
You know how they say never to judge a book by its cover? Well, in this case, the cover is compelling in and of itself.
While I’ve never experienced bulimia and don’t know a ton about the mechanics of the disease, apparently (according to this review I read) the image on the front cover of her memoir is of the index and middle fingers — the two fingers used to induce vomiting.
Rather than mess with NPR’s intro, here it is verbatim:
“I’m Korva Coleman, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we go behind closed doors. It’s the part of our program where we talk about issues that are often hidden from public view. Today’s segment was previously recorded by TELL ME MORE host Michel Martin. We hear a perspective on eating disorders but one that challenges a stereotype.
There’s a common perception that eating disorders are the exclusive domain of affluent white women and girls. Stephanie Covington Armstrong doesn’t fit that mold. She’s now a playwright, screenwriter and author living in Los Angeles, but she grew up one of three daughters of a struggling single mother. She also grew up binging, purging and using food as an outlet for her emotional pain.
Now, she’s decided to share her story with others who may not understand they’re also at risk of eating disorders. Her new book is called “Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat.” She recently talked about bulimia with TELL ME MORE host Michel Martin. Just a warning for sensitive listeners: Ms. Armstrong’s description of what led to her illness includes an experience of sexual assault. Michel Martin asked Stephanie Covington Armstrong about when her bulimia began.
You can read Stephanie’s compelling story or listen to the audio here.
Here are some snippets I pulled out of the transcript that I thought our community might be interested in delving into/discussing further.
When asked about support groups, Stephanie says, “You know, I was raised to not share my secrets with anybody but also not with a group of white people. That was like foreign and shameful and I just have this ancestry of strong black women who were able to get through anything. So here I am, you know, walking into these rooms of white people just basically on my knees emotionally, not able to function because the level of pain I had carried from childhood has swallowed me and I don’t know what to do. I don’t come from an environment where we go to therapy, where it’s okay to not be okay. And I walk in and everyone was white, and everyone seems to be okay. And it probably had a lot more to do with my projection, that they wouldn’t be able to understand me because I was black and ultimately, that’s what I discovered. But being vulnerable around a large group of white women is not where I come from. So, you know, I had a lot of shame around that, around needing this.”
This passage was also very powerful.
Martin (reporter): “It’s interesting, because you also talk about the fact that you had – one of your sisters, for example, was struggling with being battered, had married a man who was battering her. And you write that, you know, while Renee allowed a man to physically abuse her, I chose bulimia as if consciously choosing to abuse myself. I knew I would never allow another person, particularly a man, to treat me badly again. It would be years before I understood that my sister and I had simply chosen two different halves of the same whole in order to fix something broken within us. Do you think that that’s true of other women of color, for example, and why it is that we are so, we seem to be so fixed on this notion that eating disorders are not something that happen to women of color? It’s almost as if there’s certain forms of pain that we can tolerate and are willing to talk about but there are forms of pain that we’re not.”
Stephanie: “Right. Because I think like, culturally, it’s been said and there have been studies done that black women like being heavier. So I think bulimia and eating disorders are looked on as, you know, wanting to be white, wanting to have the body like a white person. But what a lot of black people don’t understand is that addiction to laxative teas, that’s bulimia, over exercising, that’s bulimia, diuretics, that’s bulimia. Like, it’s not just binging and purging.”
Martin: “But if there is someone who’s listening to our conversation, who is perhaps of color, who does not recognize herself in the narrative -or even himself let’s say – in the narrative that they typically see about eating disorders, what’s your message to them, to him or her?”
Stehpanie: “You’re not alone. You know, this disease is already isolating. Don’t allow your skin tone to make you feel more isolated. I have met hundreds of black women who are suffering. I get emails daily from people all over the country, so I know that you can get to the other side of this because I got to the other side of this. You deserve a happy life and you can, you know, learn to have your feelings and not use food.”
I’m very interested in reading Stephanie’s memoir, and I really, really love her message “Don’t allow your skin tone to make you feel more isolated.” The truth is, eating disorders can affect anyone … regardless of your skin tone.
I really hope her memoir helps open the doors for more dialogue about race and eating disorders in the future. Maybe we can kick things off here. And Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I’d love you to do a guest post here.
How about you? What do you think about race and eating disorders? Does a memoir like — a story such as Stephanie’s — change any perceptions you have had? Does anyone have personal experience they would like to share — of themselves, a friend or family member?