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Race and Ethnicity

Race-Based Trauma and Eating Disorders

A closer look at the intersection of race and eating disorders in the workplace.

Key points

  • In any workplace, there are employees quietly suffering from issues related to body image and food.
  • Cultural ideals of beauty and body image can significantly influence a person's relationship with food.
  • There is a link between white priviledge and current beauty ideals that can foster eating disorders.
  • Historical and intergenerational racial trauma can contribute to eating-disorder risk in minoritized people

Recent research has shed light on how individuals from diverse backgrounds confront distinct challenges related to eating disorders. For instance, a study focusing on young Black women with larger body sizes revealed alarming statistics about the development of eating disorders. It was found that 81% of participants reported encountering racial discrimination and demonstrated a direct correlation to increased tendencies toward both overeating and loss of control (LOC) eating compared to periods when they did not face such discrimination. This study is just one indicator that there is a profound need to address the impact of race on the development of eating disorders.

Certain stereotypes erroneously suggest that eating disorders exclusively impact young white women, diminishing the experiences of other races. These mistaken beliefs can impede early diagnosis and appropriate treatment of eating disorders, resulting in prolonged distress for affected individuals. Leaders should be cognizant of this issue and learn how best to support employees as they struggle to overcome an eating disorder.

Cultural Norms and Eating Disorders

Cultural ideals of beauty and body image can significantly impact one’s perception of self-worth and influence their relationship with food. In many cultures, pursuing the “perfect body” fosters an environment that associates thinness with success, acceptance, and attractiveness. This perspective is prevalent in the workplace, with racial and body discrimination often hindering career advancement. This mindset can exert immense pressure on minorities to conform to societal norms, often at the expense of their physical and mental health. Compounding this issue are misconceptions about eating disorders, which directly impact one’s willingness to seek intervention for an eating disorder.

In certain cultures, there exist factors that inadvertently fuel the emergence of adult eating disorders. Take, for instance, the idealization of extreme thinness in many societies, which can precipitate harmful eating behaviors among individuals striving to attain that unfair standard.

Conversely, many cultures practice behaviors that foster healthy relationships with food and body image. This may manifest as an emphasis on communal meals, where food serves not only as sustenance but as an avenue for connection and celebration. Practices such as these nurture a positive perspective, underscoring culture's role in shaping attitudes toward food and one’s body. Instances such as this, where race and eating are positively intertwined, can also be highlighted in the modern workplace to inspire a healthier outlook for the entire team,

White Privilege Weighs Heavily on Beauty Norms

Historically, white privilege has been linked to idealized beauty standards that predominantly uphold Eurocentric features. These standards, perpetuated through media, fashion, and advertising, consistently reinforce the belief that specific physical attributes are superior to others. This privilege also translates to a lack of representation and diversity in society’s beauty norms. Furthermore, its influence can extend to healthcare, where providers may be less likely to recognize and diagnose eating disorders or provide appropriate treatment for BIPOC and marginalized groups.

Historical and generational racial trauma can significantly contribute to the development and exacerbation of eating disorders within minority populations. This deep-rooted trauma can manifest in unhealthy relationships with food and body image as one struggles to cope with intense emotional distress.

Research indicates that individuals who have endured childhood trauma, encompassing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, exhibit an elevated vulnerability to developing disordered eating behaviors. Emerging research demonstrates that the effects of trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next. Essentially, an ancestor’s trauma can influence their descendant’s eating disorder. While this area of study is in its early stages, insights arising from research on other forms of intergenerational trauma, such as in the descendants of Holocaust survivors, indicate the potential inheritance of biochemical alterations in genes associated with stress responses.

Advancing Equity in Diagnosis and Treatment

A person's challenges with food and body image, exacerbated by racial discrimination, can affect their overall productivity and positivity. Advancing equity in the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders is not just a moral decision; it's a strategic investment in organizational transformation.

1. Make Practices Culturally Sensitive. Cultural sensitivity is essential for breaking down obstacles in addressing eating disorders among diverse racial groups. Leaders, therapists, healthcare providers, treatment centers, and support networks should adapt their approach to embrace the cultural values, traditions, and norms that shape how individuals perceive food and body image. Only by prioritizing cultural sensitivity and working collaboratively can real change occur.

2. Meaningful Representation Matters. When an individual from a diverse racial background sees themselves in their healthcare provider, therapist, and support network, they are much more likely to feel comfortable in treatment, therefore increasing its efficacy. Feeling seen, heard and understood is integral to one’s ability to accept and embrace treatment for highly personal challenges, such as eating disorders.

3. Increase Community and Professional Awareness. Efforts to educate the general public, other leaders, and healthcare professionals about the relationship between race and eating disorders can result in more accurate diagnoses, targeted treatment strategies, and improved outcomes.

Develop Equitable and Inclusive Approaches to Overcome Eating Disorders

Recognizing the diverse factors contributing to eating disorders — specifically race — is pivotal for tailoring interventions. Understanding the relationship between race and eating disorders is also necessary to facilitate a leader’s ability to comprehensively support employees in a way that works for their unique needs. Guided by the advice of a DEI consultant or speaker, leaders can foster an environment of greater understanding and accessibility. An expert DEI consultant or speaker can also contribute insight into how race contributes to individuals' ability to acknowledge, address, and overcome eating disorders.

This knowledge will aid leaders in providing meaningful support to employees from all backgrounds as they follow their path to recovery. By embracing a culture of empathy and awareness, leaders can recognize and address the profound influence of race on eating disorders to foster a more inclusive and supportive workplace for all.

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Brown, K. L., Hines, A. L., Hagiwara, N., Utsey, S., Perera, R. A., & LaRose, J. G. (2021). The weight of racial discrimination: Examining the association between racial discrimination and change in adiposity among emerging adult women enrolled in a behavioral weight loss program. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 9(3), 909–920.

Clark, R., Anderson, N. B., Clark, V. R., & Williams, D. R. (1999). Racism as a stressor for African Americans: A biopsychosocial model. American Psychologist, 54(10), 805–816. 54.10.805

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