On Tuesday April 15th, the French Parliament’s lower house adopted a controversial bill that basically would make it illegal for individuals, websites or publications to promote extreme thinness. The bill will have to pass senate before it can become a law, and much of the fashion industry in France is firmly against the bill. This is the first bill of its kind and includes jail time and fines of up to $70,000 if a death is found to have been caused by anorexia.
Upon reading about this bill I immediately thought not only about what this means for women and girls of color, but in particular Black women, whom it is believed are “culturally immune” to eating disorders. Even today many medical professionals do not believe Black women have eating disorders and you need only try to find scientific studies (there are few and most are dated) focused on or including Black women to see what I mean. By in large an eating disorder is still considered to be a “white girl disease.” However, according to a recent study done in the Eating Disorders Program in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Medical School, “African-American women more than White women report using laxatives, diuretics and fasting to avoid weight gain.” Once again it seems to come down to race and semantics. Yes, Black women do have eating disorders but they are often dismissed by medical professionals and/or the habits of Black women with eating disorders don’t fit the medical definition.
On March 28, 2008 Farai Chideya moderated a segment on NPR entitled, African Americans and Eating Disorders. One of her guests was Marna Clowney-Robinson, a Black Woman who is an eating disorder survivor and now advocates for survivors of eating disorders. When Clowney-Robinson was struggling with her eating disorder she went to her doctor and was told that they (doctors) didn’t see or recognize eating disorders in minority cultures so he (the doctor) was not going to go down that road, he would test for other things. It took several years before she could find someone who would accept and treat her as a patient with an eating disorder who happened to be Black.
But what’s all this got to do with fashion, fines and food? I look at what the French Parliament is attempting to do as not only a step in the right direction but also as silence breaking. In the United States alone 25 million people suffer from compulsive overeating and at least 10 million women and girls suffer from anorexia and bulimia according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Of the millions of eating disorder sufferers approximately 20% die from this mental illness and funding for research is grossly inadequate. For example in 2005 the National Institute of Health (NIH) gave $647,000,000 to support research into Alzheimer’s disease for an estimated 4.5 million sufferers. Meanwhile, the NIH gave only $12,000,000 to support research on Anorexia Nervosa exclusively while 10 million suffer from other types of eating disorders.
I do not believe that fining media outlets and/or individuals in the fashion industry will put an end to eating disorders. Nor do I believe that the media is exclusively responsible for women’s negative body image. However, the media and the fashion industry do contribute and have a great impact on women and girls, when it comes to shaping our ideals of attractiveness and beauty. What is scarier is that Black, Latina, Native American and Asian American girls and women are at a far greater risk of having an eating disorder because we are furthest away from the dominant culture’s definition of beauty. So the simple and obvious answer seems to be acceptance of self. But that would mean seeing ALL of OURSELVES on the rack in a department store, on TV, in our homes with our families, strutting down the runway, as doctors, world leaders and so on and so on… France, is this the start of something beautiful?
-Adisa Vera Beatty