National Eating Disorders Association

Filmmaker Tchaiko Omawale is Opening a Conversation about Black Women and Eating Disorders

Pooja Patel, Proud2Bme Contributor

The first thing you notice about up-and-coming filmmaker Tchaiko Omawale is her vibrant blue hair; the second thing you notice, much like her hair, is the infectious yet subtle smile spread across her face. When she speaks, she pulls you, as if she is an old childhood friend who helped you navigate your first awkward crush.

Omawale not only excels in eloquently describing her experiences, but also politely demands you to think about yours as well. Omawale, born in Rome to a Jamaican mother and Guyanese father, has lived everywhere from Sierra Leone to England to Thailand, before finally settling in the States at the age of 16 to attend the United Nations International School, and later, Columbia University. 

A black woman, Omawale actively took part in a binge eating disorder, self-harm, and body dysmorphic behaviors until the age of 30. She stated, “I literally didn’t think that I had an eating disorder—because all I knew was anorexia and bulimia—and I binged. I thought I was even too weak to have an eating disorder. I had been dealing with that from 16 to 30 and was clueless about what was going on with me.” 

She says that, in general, “black folks in America don’t really talk about eating disorders,” demonstrating how isolating it can be to have an eating disorder as a woman of color. These experiences, coupled with her love of film, inspired Omawale to bravely share parts of her story in her upcoming Tribeca Film Festival-backed feature film Solace

Solace can be described as a “coming of age feature film inspired by Tchaiko’s journey with an eating disorder and self-harm.” Omawale loves film and felt it only right that her first full-length movie demonstrated her personal experiences. “As a filmmaker—most start making stuff that is super personal to them—and for me for my first film I felt like it had to be personal. When I was 30 I figured out what was going on with me, and recovery from an eating disorder was one of the biggest turning points of my life. It was so impactful in my life and as an artist you want to express yourself through your art.”

Omawale is one of 30 million people in the United States who will struggle with an eating disorder. Statistically, everyone is likely to know or have known someone who has suffered from the life-threatening disease. Of these people, there seems to be a perception that they only affect white, middle-class women

Think about it—in the 90s, when eating disorders were even more under-reported than they are today, it was clear that when you watched shows like Saved by the Bell, or 91210, or saw successful models like Kate Moss, that eating disorders were portrayed as a white woman’s disease; often leaving minorities, again, at another disadvantage. Today, not much has seemed to change when it comes to advocating for minority women with mental health problems.

African American girls between the ages of 11 and 14 score higher than white girls of the same age in terms of behaviors attributed to eating disorders; additionally, these same girls are more susceptible to binge eating disorder—a disorder that often goes undiagnosed. Moreover, studies demonstrate that African American women feel insurmountable amounts of pressure to be role models in order to “counteract negative stereotypes,” yet minorities still get pushed aside when it comes to diagnosis and mental health perception. 

Primary care units often do not integrate a patient’s lingual, cultural, ethnic or racial background when considering a mental health diagnosis, leaving minorities undiagnosed and alone. More than 15 years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General’s report demonstrated that minorities receive lower quality mental health care than white people, and as of 2014 this has not significantly changed. Moreover, in minority populations like African Americans, some of the largest barriers for treatment of depression include denial (40%), embarrassment or shame (38%), refusal of help (31%) and lack of money or insurance (29%). 

As an Indian woman of color who is in recovery from an eating disorder, it is clear that the Indian society that I had been integrated into (primarily my extended family and family friends) either did not understand my disease, or simply refused to even try. Blunt questions like, “Are you eating again?” or, “Did you stop your madness?” are sadly not uncommon. 

Similarly, Omawale had difficulty with her family at first, but after a while her “…art moved [her] parents to the level of acceptance that [she] never thought would happen.” Yet, she notes that recovery feels difficult when people feel the need to insert themselves in unnecessary ways, stating, “It’s really hard when people comment on my body—please don’t ever talk about my body.” 

Part of the perception of eating disorders (or the lack thereof) and minorities is due to the media. In media there are very few forefront women of color, and there are no forefront women of color struggling with eating disorders in an open platform. The 2015 Minority Diversity Report states that while minorities account for 37.4 percent of the US population, only 10.5 percent were represented in leading roles in 2011, demonstrating how just how underrepresented minorities are in film. Out of the lead roles given to minorities, only 30.8% of them were minority females. 

Growing up, Omawale loved the film Salaam Bombay directed by Mira Nair, a now-idol of hers. During her time in Thailand, Omawale realized something vital—that Nair is a woman, and that she is not white. Omawale was floored: “I didn’t know [Mira Nair] was a woman. You mean that a woman can be a director?”

Just seeing her on TV was wow to me—she was Indian and I’m black—and that’s how powerful it is to see ourselves. It doesn’t need to be a black woman—it can be an Indian women, or an international non-American. When I saw Salaam Bombay, I was 12, and when I found out about her ethnicity, I was 21.” That was how long it took Omawale to see someone who even slightly resembled what she sees in herself. We cannot see the hero in ourselves if we do not see ourselves in modern-day heroes depicted by society. Noting the dearth of intersectionality between film, minorities and mental health, Omawale aimed to make a “coming of age story that I was dying to see—one that represented people who look like me.”

About the blogger: Pooja Patel studies neuroscience and philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University. She does research at a CU neurobiology laboratory, which emphasizes anticipation behaviors, circadian rhythms and biology. She has interned off and on at the National Eating Disorders Association for about two years. Pooja enjoys reading, dancing, watching mindless TV and keeping up with fashion trends.