Racial and Ethnic Variations in Eating Disorders

For this page note that in our research 'women' and 'ethnic minority women' refer to cisgender women. The research gave no indication of the sexual orientation or gender identity of any subjects, only regarding to them as male or female. To stay consistent with the research, the gendered pronouns, “she” and “her” will be used.

Eating disorders are complex mental and physical illnesses. The negative stigma attached to eating disorders can deter people suffering from seeking out potentially life-saving help (Rodgers, Watts, Austin, Haines, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2017). In the United States, mainstream culture places great emphasis on appearance. Women are preferred to be thin, large busted, long legs, and lighter-skinned (Claudat, White, & Warren, 2016). For most women, especially minority women this “ideal” is unattainable. These women, regardless of race, have the possibility to develop eating disorders. The 2015 Minority Diversity Report says minorities account for about 37.4% of the United States population, but only 10.5% of leading roles in films that year (nationaleatingdisorders.org, 2016). While this is only one part of the media, the message is clear, minorities are still not as welcome in mainstream media as white people are.

All women can be affected by eating disorders. Yet, it should be noted any research that exists on African American women, Asian American women, and Latin American women is sparse and research on ethnicities besides those three is almost non-existent. Women of different nationalities are not necessarily protected from eating disorders by their cultures, customs, and beliefs (Aviña & Day, 2016; Rodgers et. al., 2017; Small, 2016; Smart & Tsong, 2014; Talleyrand, 2010). While it may be true for some, the belief that all women of minority status are protected is wrong and can be dangerous.

Shifting the Focus 

The focus of eating disorder studies has typically been on young white women. It can be argued that young white women are the “face” of eating disorders. But the “face” of eating disorders needs to be revised and ethnic minorities must be a part of that revision. Minority women experience similar but also drastically different lives compared to white women in the United States. They can face racism and bigotry, which can attribute to something called acculturative stress. Acculturative stress is stress that occurs in someone who is trying to adjust and/or fit into the society they live in (Claudat, White, & Warren, 2016). While it is unfair to say every minority in America deals with acculturation and the possible stress behind it, it does appear to have some influence on possible eating disorder development.

The misconception that women who are also ethnic minorities are protected from eating disorders stems from the belief that minorities do not buy into American ideas put in place by the predominantly white media. The underrepresentation of minorities in the media can contribute to unhealthy body image in minority women (Javier & Belgrave, 2015; Kroon Van Diest, Tartakovsky, & Stachon, 2014; Pettit & Perez, 2014; Smart & Tsong, 2014; Talleyrand, 2010). While for some women, this may be true, media influence is not the only way someone can develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders can develop out of many different circumstances.

Stereotypes do not Always Equal Truth

African American women can sometimes subscribe to different, larger body shapes. That is why people believe all African American women are immune to eating disorders (Aviña & Day, 2016; Kroon Van Diest et. al., 2014; Rodgers et. al., 2017; Shuttlesworth & Zotter, 2011; Small, 2016; Talleyrand, 2010). That is not true. Latin American women are stereotyped as preferring both larger body types, as well as smaller ones, which just shows how little research there is in this field (Aviña & Day, 2016; Rodgers et. al., 2017). Just because some Asian American women are very perfectionistic and come from stricter family units does not mean they are more likely to develop eating disorders (Chang, Yu, & Lin, 2014; Javier & Belgrave, 2015; Smart & Tsong, 2014). These beliefs stem from stereotypes and while they are sometimes based in truth, it is wrong to say that minorities all believe in the same things simply because they are of the same or similar ethnicity.

Information about eating disorders and how they affect minorities is minimal. There is not a lot of research about how minorities are affected. To understand how and why minorities develop eating disorders, more research is needed. With research comes understanding, and with understanding comes help for those in need.

African American Women and Eating Disorders

Based on existing research, African American women are a minority group commonly thought to be protected from developing eating disorders (Aviña & Day, 2016; Kroon Van Diest et. al., 2014; Rodgers et. al., 2017; Shuttlesworth & Zotter, 2011; Small, 2016; Talleyrand, 2010). This is because African American women are believed to be more accepting of women with larger body types. By larger, it means being larger than the American ideal female body which is tall and thin. While this may ring true for some African American women, or even women of other ethnicities, it does not mean they are immune to eating disorders.

Latin American Women and Eating Disorders 

Latin American women experience eating disorders. The research on Latin American women and eating disorders is sparse. Just like other minorities, there is a need for more research to understand what, if anything is different when Latin American women and the development of eating disorders. Multiple studies suggest that acculturation and acculturative stress may have some influence in Latin American women’s development of eating disorders or at least the development of feelings of low self-esteem about their bodies (Aviña & Day, 2016; Claudat, White, & Warren, 2016; Kroon Van Diest et. al., 2014; Rodgers et. al., 2017).

Asian American Women and Eating Disorders

 Asian American women are affected by eating disorders. Unfortunately, research about how eating disorders affect Asian Americans and what factors can predict them is very limited (Chang, Yu, & Lin, 2014; Claudat, White, & Warren, 2016; Javier & Belgrave, 2015; Kroon Van Diest et. al., 2014; Smart & Tsong, 2014). Research that has been done on Asian American women and eating disorders acknowledge the stereotypes that may put Asian American women at risk of developing an eating disorder. The stereotype that Asian Americans are perfectionistic and put a lot of pressure on themselves can contribute to the development of eating disorders (Chang et. al., 2014; Smart & Tsong, 2014). In general, perfectionism has served as a predictor of eating disorder pathology in all women (Chang et. al, 2014; Smart & Tsong, 2014). That does not mean every Asian American woman is this way or believes these things.

Acculturation and acculturative stress can play a role in Asian American women’s development of eating disorders (Claudat, White, & Warren, 2016; Kroon Van Diest et. al., 2014). Based on the research done so far, it is inconclusive as to whether Asian American women experience eating disorder symptoms are similar or different rates than white women (Kroon Van Diest et. al., 2014). This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about what could possibly exacerbate eating disorders in Asian American women and if there are specific eating disorder(s) that occur in Asian American women at higher rates.