Eating Disorders: Not Just a Young, Rich, White Girl’s Disease

The first time I truly learned about eating disorders and the significant mental and physical effects on one’s body and life was in 1999 during my doctoral program at The University of Georgia (UGA).  I was born in Jamaica, migrated to Florida and completed my undergraduate training at The University of Florida (UF) and my master’s degree at a historical Black university in Washington, DC – Howard University (HU).  Up until then, it seemed that eating disorders only affected young, rich, White girls.  In fact, in my homeland of Jamaica, this is still a foreign illness.  But times seem to be changing.  As a young girl, I remember being encouraged to have “meat on our bones.”  But as countries become more influenced by the American standard of beauty, people in other countries, including Jamaica, are steering towards the White American stereotypical image of beauty.

While at UF (1989-1993), I had heard rumors of fellow dorm mates, friends, and sorority sisters engaging in extreme dieting (fad diets and diet pills) and excessive exercising.  However, no one mentioned the words “eating disorders.” Later, while at HU (1993-1995) I learned that one of my friends suffered and recovered from anorexia when she was a young girl living in Jamaica.  She reported that the Jamaican physicians did not know enough about eating disorders or how to treat her.  So, they flew doctors in from Canada to treat her.  I am happy to say she recovered and continues to live a healthy life.   I must admit, that even though she detailed her journey, eating disorders were still foreign to me.  This issue still seemed to be a “young, rich, white girl’s” disease as it was portrayed in the media.  Up until this date, the only other person I knew who suffered from an eating disorder was Karen Carpenter, the singer.   

While studying for my Ph.D. at UGA (1998-2002) and working in the campus counseling center, I began to see more cases of disordered eating, eating disorders and body image issues.  I became more and more curious and wanted to learn causes, effects, and treatment of these illnesses.  Since my eating disorder cases at this time were young, White females, I also became curious about the cross-cultural and diversity issues among eating disorders.  So, when it was time to decide on a dissertation topic, it was not difficult.  I decided to research the cross-cultural comparison of eating disorders among college students. 

My curiosity and intrigue continued to grow, so I pursued my internship/residency training in the inpatient and outpatient units at The Medical College of Georgia (MCG) and my post-doctoral training at the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders (ACE).   While at MCG, my first Black eating disorder client was a woman in her 80’s who reminded me of my grandmother.  She had a similar body shape and wore her hair in a similar bun!  That’s the first time I felt that this illness “hit home.”  This woman had been battling bulimia for over 40 years!  She was not young, she was not rich, and she was not White.   I also treated a young Black boy (around age 8 years) who was anorexic.  That’s when I knew I wanted to specialize in eating disorders.

Since moving to Atlanta and working at ACE and in private practice, many of my eating disorders and body image cases have been women of color of various socio-economic groups and ages.  But sadly, many people of color still think that eating disorders are a rich, White girl’s disease.  In fact, some of my ethnic diverse clients don’t even realize they have an eating disorder until I tell them that they have one.  In addition, many of them have significant body image issues, oftentimes hating their skin color, facial features, hair, and body shape.

Over the past 12 years, I have conducted presentations in schools, colleges, and the community.  Last year I conducted a presentation called “Curvy, Curly, and Chocolate – Loving Your Body from Head to Toe.”  The focus of the presentation was to encourage people to love the curves of their body, the natural curls of their hair, and the chocolate color of the skin, whether it is white chocolate, milk chocolate, or dark chocolate. 

As an eating disorders treatment professional it is my hope that I can successfully help all people I encounter overcome their eating disorder.  I also hope to reach ethnic diverse communities and educate them about the symptoms and treatment of eating disorders.  It is concerning that so many are suffering and don’t even know that they don’t have to suffer and that help is out there.   I invite you to join me in connecting with more diverse populations, of all ages and socio-economic groups.  Let’s develop ways we can reach these populations.  They need us!

Dr. Judi-Lee Webb is a licensed psychologist and Certified Eating Disorders Specialist.  She has been in private practice in Atlanta and treating eating disorders and other mental health issues since 2003.  She is the co-owner of New Directions Counseling Center in Smyrna and is opening a second location in Buckhead this summer. She is also the founding President of iaedp-Atlanta Chapter.