The Intersection of Racial Trauma and Eating Disorders
As the eyes and ears of American society are fixed on dismantling more than 400 years of racial injustice at this pivotal moment in time, the intersection of racial trauma and eating disorders must be part of this broader conversation.
Racial trauma is a form of posttraumatic stress that individuals from marginalized ethnic groups can suffer in response to discrimination, threats of harm, and shaming events based on their race or skin color. The trauma could be inherited genetically from abuses in the past, or it could manifest through inequalities in the present.1 Much like other traumatic experiences, this can lead to adverse effects on mental health such as eating disorder symptoms and behaviors.
How Racial Trauma Can Impact Marginalized Ethnicities
In order to flesh out this intersection of racial trauma and eating disorders, it's crucial to first examine how the stress of racial trauma often impairs mental health in general. Because racism is a systemic and sociopolitical construct that pervades most—if not all—facets of the marginalized experience in this nation, racial trauma happens continuously which makes it a difficult wound to heal from.2
The fears of violence, microagression, prejudice, erasure, and cultural insensitivity are often unrelenting for both communities and individuals of color. As a result, these people who encounter racial trauma could also exhibit comorbid mental health issues like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, hypervigilance, and other complex emotions indicative of posttraumatic stress.3 It's also worth noting, many of those symptoms can be associated with eating disorders too.
What to Know About Racial Trauma and Eating Disorders
Posttraumatic stress and eating disorders are invariably connected—in fact, the prevalence rate of anorexia, bulimia, and related conditions is much higher in those who have suffered trauma than in other segments of the population. Since both victims of trauma and eating disorders often use self-medication and dissociation to separate from their bodies, it makes sense why these two issues are so commonly enmeshed.4 Therein lies the intersection of racial trauma and eating disorders.
When people face discrimination for their race, ethnicity, or skin color, this continuous and unresolved trauma embeds itself deep within the body. As a result, behaviors designed to numb, punish, control, and detach from that same body can manifest over time. This could mean restricting food intake to create distance from a marginalized appearance and project a more culturally normative aesthetic. Or it could take the form of a ritualistic binge-purge cycle in order to eject painful memories, emotions, and beliefs about racial identity. However it materializes, the intersection of racial trauma and eating disorders is a serious issue that cannot be overlooked.
- Polanco-Roman, L., et al., "Racial Discrimination as Race-Based Trauma, Coping Strategies, and Dissociative Symptoms Among Emerging Adults." Psychological Trauma, March 2016.
- Comas-Diaz, L., et al., "Racial Trauma: Theory, Research, and Healing." American Psychological Association, January 2019.
- Carter, R.T., et al., "Initial Development of the Race-Based Traumatic Stress Symptom Scale: Assessing the Emotional Impact of Racism." American Psychological Association, January 2013.
- Coker-Ross, C., "Eating Disorders, Trauma, and PTSD." National Eating Disorders Association, Accessed June 30, 2020.
Schurrer, M. (2020, July 1). The Intersection of Racial Trauma and Eating Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, August 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2020/7/the-intersection-of-racial-trauma-and-eating-disorders