An Appetite for Hunger

A new book on eating disorders shatters stereotypes about who's susceptible.

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To most everyone, the prototypical sufferer is an insecure, sickly-thin, young, white woman who looks in the mirror and sees a fat girl. It is Karen Carpenter, singing the sad songs of the 1970s as she starved herself and finally died in 1983. It is so many Hollywood actresses, splashed across magazine covers, their pretty heads unwieldy on bodies the size of pins. It is the adolescent cross-country star, her breasts and period long gone, running her ropy body into the ground. It is an entire dorm of private-school girls, bingeing on junk food, then vomiting in the bathroom in shifts. Increasingly, it is a suburban teen who has found an online community of pro-anorexia Web sites and "thinspiration" videos so she can share secrets with others.

The image of an anorexic or bulimic person has NEVER been working class, over 40, certainly not male and definitely not black. Until now.

Anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders have spread beyond the core population of white, middle-class girls and into groups that were once considered invulnerable, according to Kate Taylor, editor of the new anthology Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial and Overcoming Anorexia (Anchor Books).

Taylor, a culture reporter at the New York Sun, was hospitalized for anorexia during her junior year at Harvard. She expected the other patients to be "pathetic, passive, probably former ballerinas with nothing more important on their minds than how many calories are in a carrot stick or a slice of diet bread."

But her peers at the hospital were very different. "The other patients defied all stereotypes," she writes. "Very few were young, rich white girls. At the first treatment unit outside Boston and in a later program in New York, I met anorexics who were middle-aged, who were mothers, who were African American, Latino, Orthodox Jewish and even male."

Most, she says, weren't the "perfect little girls" emphasized in popular culture, but real people with real problems—poverty, addiction, abandonment and sexual abuse. The collection of essays in Going Hungry reflects the diversity she saw, including the voices of two African-American women.

In her essay, "Finding Home," Maya Browne, a New York City writer and producer, discusses her long struggle with anorexia and bulimia, which she first chronicled in Essence magazine in 1993. Her story, and the study that accompanied it, helped break the silence on black women and eating disorders. Before that, African Americans seemed immune to these problems; they were viewed as a part of white women's craziness. In fact, compared to other women, blacks have a healthy self-image when it comes to weight. Our role models are a voluptuous Queen Latifah and curvy Mo'Nique, not the hangers on the runways who need some meat on their bones. We have a tradition of roundness; to our ancestors, a full-figured body symbolized health, wealth and fertility. Our relationship with food is just fine—often too much so.

But Browne's ground-breaking article in Essence showed that no race is immune. More recently in "Finding Home," she describes—in graphic detail—her own binge-purge drama during a holiday dinner.

"I had always loved Thanksgiving meals, but this particular evening the smell permeating the house—roast turkey, candied yams bubbling in pools of butter and brown sugar and pumpkin pie baking, with its golden–brown, buttery crust—filled me with terror." At the end of the meal, she excused herself and found a bathroom where she wouldn't be discovered. After locking the door, she stuck her finger down her throat and gagged.

"In exact reverse of the order I had consumed them, the turkey, stuffing, yams, pie, cranberry sauce and string beans came up. With a feeling of accomplishment, I flushed the toilet and turned to the sink to wash my hands." Browne's bio for the Essence piece described her as a recovered anorexic and bulimic. But, she admits in "Finding Home," "my battle would go on for another decade."