National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

I Just Am
By Chani Coady

I wasn't really sure what was so important because I had stopped listening. I knew what was coming next because I had heard it hundreds of times before. Sometimes from doctors, sometimes from well-meaning friends and family. If eating less and exercising more was the magic solution, well, it failed to work with me.

Eating too much and exercising too little weren’t my problem. Binge eating was my problem.

As I left the doctor's office, ashamed and crying yet again, I vowed to myself that I would find help. I was sick and miserable. I vowed that I would beat my eating disorder, this time for good.

I have always heard that eating disorders are “white folk” diseases, especially from those who are not white. Or, if someone accepts that eating disorders may affect minorities, they're diseases that you acquire in your teen years or in your early twenties. They are rich people’s diseases. As a half-black, half-white, almost thirty-year-old woman who falls into the working class, I can tell you that those assumptions are simply not true. Eating disorders do not know age, race, or class.

Growing up in predominantly white areas, it was always forced upon me that I absolutely needed to be thin to be pretty. To be successful. To be desired. Sometimes it was overt, sometimes it was stealthy, in the form of a “do you really need seconds?” from a concerned family member. As a naturally larger-than-average person, it hit home. I went on my first diet when I was 11 and I lost weight, only to promptly regain it. I tried both healthy and unhealthy ways of losing weight and thankfully have no lasting health problems from the unhealthy ways. 

I was constantly made fun of for my height, weight, body shape, skin color, acne – you name it. Rejected by peers for my inability to play sports in a coordinated manner or run during a soccer game without getting winded, I retreated into solitude. Forget about sports teams, there just wasn't money for that. Books and snacks became my friends. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, so it was important to clean your plate. Who knew how good the next meal would be, or even when it would be coming? Family members took pity on me and slipped me extra food, made extra special meals. I would sneak into the kitchen and eat when my mom wasn't looking. My warm, loving, caring, but extremely-busy-sole-supporter-of-the-family mother encouraged me to build upon my strengths, which were reading and school. Reading and snacking. Homework and snacking. Always snacking.

Going away to boarding school at age 16, I had even less adult supervision, which meant I could keep eating secretly. After high school I went to a small, private, liberal arts college, where most of the students were white, wealthy and beautiful. I found a group of wonderful, supportive friends who accepted me for who I was, but it was clear that I didn’t fit in with most of the people on campus. I discovered that you could eat ice cream for breakfast and drink beer all day. An unlimited meal plan meant I could eat as many times a day as I wanted to. 

When I moved to a new city for graduate school I was surprised to discover that white was the minority and beauty was seen as people of different colors and sizes. It made me panicked. I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that I couldn't grasp the concept that someone might find me beautiful. I was so unused to the standard of beauty in the African-American culture that I was convinced that these men were simply hitting on me to make fun of me. In African-American culture larger body types are often considered beautiful. But that is not what our predominantly white society says, and that’s not what the media says, and I didn’t believe it. I developed severe anxiety and refused to leave the house for anything other than going to class and my internship. Once a week, like clockwork, I would go to the grocery store, trying to hide so no one would see me. 

I have been on every diet I can think of. I'd lose weight for a little bit, but it always came back.  The most extreme weight loss came with a doctor-supervised diet where I ate almost nothing. The weight fell off, and my hair fell out. My nails were breaking. I was constantly cold and tired. I was miserable and I realized that I was slowly killing myself. My body was starved. Every time I saw food, I needed to eat it; I became obsessed with finding and eating food. I ate secretly. I ate not-so-secretly. I would panic every time I needed to eat in front of someone. I eventually became so out of control that I came full circle: I came to the realization that I was slowly killing myself with food.

Looking into treatment, I was shocked to find almost nothing that treated binge eating disorder. I was surrounded by three world-class hospitals, but no one had the program I needed. One place had an intensive outpatient program, but only in the middle of the day. They had nothing designed for a working person’s schedule, which reinforced my belief that only the rich can afford treatment. If I didn't work, my husband and I didn't eat. Even when I did finally find treatment, it was at a facility that only accepted private insurance. Thank goodness for the privilege of having good insurance. Even so, when I got the bill for the total cost of treatment, I couldn’t believe the total, or imagine how I could possibly pay it.

Treatment was so hard. I laughed, I cried, I was sad and happy. I met so many amazing people who I learned from. I could relate to the struggles of the others in my program – after all, we were all there due to binge eating disorder – but sometimes I struggled with the racial gaps between us. I was the only person of color in my program. ‘Where is everyone else?’ I thought. I cannot be the only black person – even half-black – with food issues. 

Treatment helped me to learn so much about myself and my ways of thinking. I learned that when I call myself fat or unworthy, I am telling myself that I am not okay the way I am. And that is not okay with me. I love my personality. I love my ability to care for others, my compassion, and my intelligence. I learned that food is food. It nourishes my body. It is neither inherently good nor bad, it just is. There are good days and bad days, but most days I just remember: I exist. I am. And I keep going.

This story is part of the Marginalized Voices Project. Learn more.

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