For years, playwright and screenwriter Stephanie Covington Armstrong battled what's considered a "white woman's problem." In her new memoir, "Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat: A Story of Bulimia" she discusses her struggle as a black woman with a severe eating disorder. She talks with Books on the Root about bulimia, her painful childhood, why no woman is immune from an eating disorder, and healing.
Books on the Root: Can you talk a little bit about your battle with bulimia?
Stephanie Covington Armstrong: I was born the youngest of three girls when my mother was twenty years old. She was overwhelmed with the care and feeding of all three of us. She didn't have much time to address our emotional needs and often didn't have the money for our food. I believe that because I was born with needs that my mother wasn't able to meet, it led to a hunger that would eventually turn into bulimia. When I was twelve years old with the body of a young boy, I was raped by my uncle. Being fatherless, my uncle had a larger than life place in my life and I trusted him. I believed that his raping me was some kind of indication of my value or lack of value. It made me shut down and stop trusting people. It also made me shut off from my family and as I grew older, men. Eventually I started playing around with diets, laxative and diet teas, trying to control my food. I've never been overweight so it wasn't about being skinny. I wanted one area of my life where I had control and no one could hurt me. I also had these inner beliefs that because of the rape, I wasn't worthy or deserving of love. I ate to push down the feelings of low self-esteem and shame. I really thought that not only did I invite the rape, but there was something broken in me that made it impossible for my father to love me. Then I discovered bulimia. I didn't want to get fat because then people would know that I wasn't okay. They could see the tear in my armor if I were heavy. With bulimia I could hide my pain in plain sight and you'd never know how I felt about myself.
BOTR: Painful childhoods play such a significant role in the mental and physical disorders that we experience as adults.
SCA: Adults always think that it's easy being a child, but it's one of the most difficult times in your life. You're experiencing new things every day and constantly shifting how you see yourself or your place in the world. You are powerless and vulnerable and at the mercy of the adults in your life. Fatherlessness, poverty and abuse are all hallmarks of troubled childhoods and were all a part of mine. Lately, I've watched that show "Intervention" on A&E about addiction. In over 75% of the episodes, the addict was sexually abused. People still aren't talking about the correlation between physical, emotional and sexual abuse and addiction. Painful childhoods break down your self-esteem and can take years to repair or never repair. Eating disorders are a form of depression and until you get to the root and excavate the things that cause pain, you'll always be imprisoned.
BOTR: What prompted you to tell your story?
SCA: Once I got into recovery I wanted to tell my story but I wasn't ready. The stigma of having an eating disorder didn't fit with how I wanted the world to view me. It wasn't until I went through a painful divorce and relapsed did I recognize that it was the silence that allowed the shame to continue. I've met so many black women struggling with their issues with food whether they were anorexic, bulimic, compulsive overeaters, binge eaters or chronic dieters. This is a crisis in our community and I wanted to be a part of the solution. I really thought that if I could help one person with an eating disorder to heal, to know that for us diets don't work and that we deserve to have a healthy relationship to food, then sharing my story would be worth it. The pain of staying silent kept me from living a full life. When a woman is three hundred pounds she is stuffing down her feelings and fears and the only difference between me and her was that I purged so you couldn't see my pain. I wanted black women to know that many of us use food to avoid our feelings. I thought if I shared my story, it would help others to see themselves and know that they can get help.
BOTR: Despite what some think, black women aren't immune to body image issues.
SCA: You can be healthy at any size but that means eating right and exercising. We are constantly being exposed to pictures of what an acceptable body looks like. I do think it's about getting healthy. Black women who have spoken in the media for years about loving their big girl curves like Mo'Nique and Queen Latifah have publicly gone on diets to become healthier. They have also come forward to talk about being raped in childhood. To me there is a definitive correlation between our ability to have a healthy relationship to food and sexual abuse. I just want us to start having a dialogue about it.
BOTR: Bulimia is usually considered a white woman's problem. What else do you hope women, black women in particular, take from your memoir?
SCA: I hope that black women know that bulimia is nothing more than a desperate coping mechanism meant to help keep life in control. But there are so many other things women do to give off the appearance of control that are equally destructive. I want black women to know that they don't have to live in fear or pain or define themselves by anything that happened in their childhoods. This book is about breaking free from the shame and living a full and happy life.
BOTR: What are some of the other common misconceptions associated with eating disorders?
SCA: That they are rare in the black community. A recent USC study documents that black girls are 50% more likely to develop bulimia than white girls. Because we don't flock to traditional therapy, we are not counted. Another belief is that if a black girl has an eating disorder than she wants to be white. I have never wanted to be anything other than dark chocolate. We are so busy feeding into these stereotype beliefs that it makes it impossible for black women to risk coming forward. We have got to remove the judgment and ignorance. I've interviewed young girls in South Central Los Angeles, girls in school at HBCU's, and many other proud black girls who are all struggling with eating disorders.
BOTR: For you, a need for control in your life was at the center of your eating disorder. What are some healthy ways that women can gain control in their lives without hurting their bodies?
SCA: I've become a huge fan of therapy. Secrets have power and it lessens them to talk to a professional about our problems. We are the only race that believes we need to handle all our problems alone and just suffer in silence. This is not the days of slavery where we had to live up to the strong black woman archetype or die. We have choices. Another thing women can do is exercise, even if it's just walking. Do things that get you in touch with your body like yoga or stretching. Journaling is another way we can get in touch with our feelings. Often, we are so busy taking care of everyone else that we don't even realize how we are feeling, besides hungry, until we write it down. Prayer is also a big part of my life today. I talk to God all day long; it's as if God is my co-pilot. Sharing your story with a friend may help. It's important to know that there is a place you can go to be vulnerable.
BOTR: How were you finally able to begin the healing process?
SCA: I didn't have a choice. I went to a 12 step meeting for compulsive overeaters. I figured out that not only was bulimia a disease but it wasn't normal to be hungry all the time. I also went into therapy. I also started talking to other women who had problems with food and it made me feel less isolated or ashamed. I was like a crack addict; I just got tired of being consumed with thoughts of food or dieting or thinking my life would start when I got to a certain point. I was able to tell close friends and family members.
BOTR: What advice can you impart to women who may be suffering from an eating disorder?
SCA: Get help. It is the silence that makes this disease possible. Find one person that you can talk to about your disease. But you have to know that you cannot do this on your own. No diet or exercise plan alone is going to heal an eating disorder. It's a mental disease. Let go of the shame, it keeps you imprisoned. Go online to eating disorder websites such as www.bulimia.com or www.nationaleatingdisordersassociation.org. Knowledge is power.
is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at feliciapride.com.