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About ten percent of Americans struggle with eating disorders – that’s true across every ethnicity. But in the Latino community, eating disorders often go under-reported and undiagnosed. There’s evidence to suggest that being multicultural makes Latinos particularly susceptible.
It can be hard for any parent to recognize the signs of an eating disorder, and awareness tends to be particularly low among immigrants and people of color.
Anahi Ortega was 12 when she started developing an eating disorder. A year and a half later, her parents started to suspect something was wrong, “The first clues were weight and my social life and behavior really changed.”
Corazon Tierra recovered from an eating disorder 20 years ago. “My mom was always on a diet to lose weight,” says Tierra, “at a very early age I became very concerned about my weight and by the time I was a teenager, my eating disorder was already in full force.”
Sometimes it’s easier for Latino families to acknowledge the issues as a physical problem rather than a mental one.
“My mom would try to feed me home remedies to open my appetite,” says Tierra, “but I refused to do that, I refused to take any home remedies or anything like that.”
But going to the doctor sometimes comes with its own challenges.
“They concluded that I had an eating disorder and brought my parents in to talk to them,” says Ortega, “but it was a little hard because they didn’t speak English and I was the translator and so I was able to share what I wanted.”
There are cultural barriers to seeking help, like the costs of pursuing treatment and the general stigma of mental health treatment. Add to that the pressure of constantly straddling two cultures.
SOCIETAL PRESSURES AT ODDS
“We are supposed to look very skinny and very beautiful and in shape but we’re also supposed to be eating and enjoying food with our loved ones,” says Tierra, “so there’s a double message that is very tense and it creates disruption.”
Dr. Ioana Boie is a professor of counseling at Marymount University. “Someone who grew up in a Latino community where the standards of appearance are related to having a curvier body type, and then goes to a school into a primarily caucasian institution and standards of appearance and eating habits and eating norms are all different and these are all pressures that will put somebody at an increased risk.”
When food is so closely tied with family life, it can take on a whole other meaning. That is to say, eating disorders are never completely about food.
“In my experience the eating disorder started as anorexia but it was hard to maintain because food is such an important part of my culture and it’s always being presented and pushed,” says Ortega.
“I think you receive two types of messages,” says Dr. Boie, “you receive messages that food is fun and celebration and eat eat eat … but when you step out of that culture you’re supposed to be thin now.”
To get help, Latinos first have to overcome the stigma of getting help.
“I think admitting it within our family will have to force other family members to acknowledge that issue as well,” says Ortega, “we couldn’t do that because we wanted to keep our family in the perfect appearance.”
Because eating disorders are not talked about, many Latinos think they’re rare. Almost half of all Americans personally know somebody with an eating disorder.
“An eating disorder is primarily believed to be a white middle class, or upper class women’s issue,” says Dr. Boie, “that puts Latinos and Latinas at risk for minimizing the fact that they have eating disorder.”
Men are over 10 percent of those with an eating disorder.
“There further is the belief that this is not a serious problem, it is something that will pass,” says Tierra.
But eating disorders never just go away, they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Unlike a purely physical illness, patients can’t recover unless they choose to let go their old habits, which can be really scary.
BUILDING A SUPPORT NETWORK
They need to rely on the people around them for support, even when those people don’t really understand what they’re going through.”
“I had to say ‘it’s not okay when you say que estoy gorda,'” says Ortega, “at times I had to step out of the house and say ‘I have to leave because I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel comfortable with how you’re treating me,”
“It was a messy process really, it wasn’t harmoniously done, but it was done,” says Tierra, “now they know what to say and how to say it and they know how to support me in a better way.”
Even the word for eating disorders in Spanish – trastorno alimentario- is scary. It means something like a mental hurricane. Recovery is a hard road, but with hard work comes hope.
“I had the genes and I had the environment that just triggered the eating disorder at a young age,” says Ortega, “after 10 years I was finally able to find recovery.”
“I have been free of eating disorders for almost 20 years now and I always say that I’m not only recovered, I am healed, because I never went back to that behavior,” says Tierra, “I never felt the need to go back to that behavior.”
Not just recovery, but healing.
If you or somebody you know is struggling with an eating disorder contact the National Eating Disorders Association. You may reach their Helpline at (800) 931-2237..
Photo by Flickr User Zachary Locks