Race, Eating Disorders, and Body Ideals

It was between this and vuvuzelas to find South Africa images that didn't
add to the black-woman objectification pile-on. So!
Black South African models are slimmer than their white counterparts—a significant reversal from the U.S., where black models are heavier than white ones.

The initial research prompt was not about models, though, but about eating disorders. Remember when we all thought that eating disorders were only a white-girl thing? The study doesn't address eating disorders in South Africa, but other reports say that EDs among black South African women are on the rise. This echoes recent findings that Latina teens have a higher rate of bulimia than other teen groups in the U.S., as Latina American teens and South African women are groups in the midst of a historic shift in their respective countries.

It's a step in the right direction that women of color, both in the States and abroad, are finally being recognized as equal-opportunity sufferers of eating disorders; being seen as exempt from EDs may prevent sufferers from seeking care, and can also prevent doctors from asking the right sort of questions that would lead to a proper diagnosis and treatment.

But it's somewhat disheartening to see the science community so eager to boil down the increase in EDs among women of color to shifting body ideals. That's a part of it, sure—Latina media stars aren't as thin as white starlets, but they're still thinner than the average woman, and even at their curviest they represent an impossible ideal. (News flash: Not all Cuban women roll out of bed looking like Eva Mendes.) But let's look at other pressures that are particular to nonwhite women and girls in South Africa and the U.S.: striking a balance between assimilating to be accepted by the larger world and maintaining a distinct cultural identity; absorbing the hopes and dreams that were denied to their mothers by apartheid or economics; a greater likelihood of facing discrimination, both overt and covert; and, in the case of Latina teens, a greater likelihood of being an undocumented resident and knowing that your parents—or you—could be exported to a homeland, perhaps one you have no memory of. "That's a very real anxiety that not many kids have to deal with," said Rosie Molinary, author of Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina, when I talked with her for our interview. "They came here at 2 years old, and somebody might be like, 'Send them back to El Salvador,' and it's like, 'Great, well, I don't know Spanish.' "

The point is: It's not that suddenly women of color are now all up in arms about becoming really skinny; it's that they are facing a bundle of unprecedented anxieties, and it's seeking a measure of control and relief that's largely the root of eating disorders for all women. The pressure to be thin might pull the trigger, but if we rely solely on that measure we're going to continue having blinders on as to who is really at risk.

Which brings us back to the thinness of black South African models. Model Carol Makhathini reports that the dichotomy exists because black models are automatically assumed to be larger than white models, increasing the thin imperative. It makes sense on one level, but certainly black women are assumed to be larger than white women in the States, and it doesn't play out that way in thinness-obsessed America. Another possibility is that South African women are playing out history on their very bodies. Apartheid ended in 1993, but given the preponderance of racism in the U.S. nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it's not surprising that racial tensions and other forms of racial inequality run high in South Africa. Combine that with it being the world's leader in raping women, and suddenly black South African women's bodies can be seen not as their own, but as symbols—symbols of legacies of the past, hopes for the future, of a race-gender war that will take generations to resolve. It's unclear whether black South African models suffer from eating disorders in greater numbers than their white colleagues--but research indicates that black South African women display greater eating disorder pathology than other ethnic groups, and at comparable rates to white women. But eating disordered or not, black models' bodies hold more potential for projection in a nation where race is so distinctly loaded. It's no wonder that their bodies are more molded, more sculpted--and are literally less--than those of their white peers.