Today I have a great appreciation for my body, my mind, and my spirit. Ten years ago, I would never would have believed that an appreciation for the physicality and spirituality of my being would be something I’d share with others. I never would have believed I would get my life back. I never would have imagined I’d be standing before you today sharing a story not only of eating disorder recovery but also of hope, love, and grace. Together, those three words – hope, love, and grace – may seem trite, simple, overused. But honestly, they describe the story of my journey from extreme brokenness to wellness, to wholeness, and to more vibrant living.
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia affect people of all backgrounds and at similar rates. In the Black community, they are rarely talked about or understood. Long-held distrust of the medical community, complex social and economic factors, and cultural celebrations of fuller, more voluptuous bodies have all made it difficult to recognize this mental health challenge within our community and for those afflicted to seek help. The permeating silence of one’s experience with an eating disorder can be pronounced and further complicated during seasons of compromised, illusory, or fatally non-existent identity.
As a Black girl growing up in Ohio and raised in predominantly white environments, I struggled to understand who I was in relation to my race and body. The daily images I saw of girls who looked nothing like me but simultaneously shared some economic similarities was incredibly confusing. An internal war with my hair and skin color took root and blossomed into a full-fledged oak tree during my high school and college years. The constant pressure to excel, to receive acceptance, and to dis-prove the stereotypical images of Black women consumed my days and nights. Everything was focused on not being the “other” – including the contortion of my body into an unrealistic, unsustainable, identity-defying shape that scoffed at the power of grace and self-love.
Indeed, for such a long time my life was marked by a need to embody perfection; to exceed the expectations and markers of cultural success; to not rustle feathers or seem domineering; and to demonstrate that “Black girls” too are loveable. My identity was so incredibly warped, so utterly defined by what others thought of me that contemplation of who I could actually be was an immensely scary activity. I knew who others wanted me to be or who they needed me to be, yet I couldn’t fathom who I was truly purposed to be. I struggled to find my voice. I struggled to hear and know the sound of true self-expression.
As a result, I tried on a lot of “me’s.”
I tried track and field, tennis, swimming.
I tried singing − and a uniquely wild obsession with Barbara Streisand.
I tried dancing ballet and modern, thinking one day I’d be part of a local dance company.
I tried policy work, social work, anthropology, and more.
I tried neatness, the constant yes, clothes that said “I’m smart, worthy of your attention, someone to take notice of.”
I tried smiling through pain, anxiety, and fear.
I tried masking the loneliness of being misunderstood and uncertain.
And I tried denying what was really going on – that internally there was a significant void and emptiness leaving soul-deafening screams of silence in the wake of sheer destruction.
There I was, trying on everything, trying to be everything, yet ending up being one thing: sick.
It wasn’t until my eating disorder peaked in law school that I could no longer deny that deafening silence of my spirit. Deep inside me was the desire to work with children and families, yet a worldly compulsion to enter a more traditional, “white collar” job continued to distract me. My eating disorder recovery battle ensued. Anger ensued. Depression took root. Confusion abounded. Seeking the world’s holy grail of success almost cost me my life, on many occasions.
Ultimately, I received treatment and began the process of unpacking the world’s understandings of race and womanhood, and the very things I had allowed to define and mediate my life. It was time to release fear and do the hard work associated with growth and experiential learning. And so, I left law school to pursue a career in education.
Overall, the identity discovery/recovery process wasn’t easy, but it certainly proved to be worth it. The care I received launched me into new seasons of exploration, strength, wisdom, and freedom. The allure of authenticity yielded greater self-honesty, connection, and robust relationships for me. Life continued to change in both complex and simple ways. Personal rhythms flourished easily. Professional work demonstrated a passionate exuberance. Who I was on the outside no longer conflicted with who I knew myself to be on the inside.
Eventually, my eating disorder got better, and from chaos, order was established. I developed a deep faith which helped transform my heart, mind, and behavior. In truly discovering God for myself and not through the faith of others, I came to love myself as perfectly imperfect. I was, indeed, full of idiosyncrasies and faults, but also loved and made whole by His redemption and forgiveness. With God, the eating-disordered, racialized, and cultural lies I had believed for years were dismantled. The lies that I wasn’t enough, that no one would ever love me, that strong Black womanhood was offensive, and that being brown was shameful are gone.
Today these words continue to feed my Christian, Black womanhood. They are words that allow me to pour into my passions. And while my journey into loving and living my true, authentic identity began through the restriction of calories, intense exercise, and the denial of what race meant in my life, today I walk hand in hand with others, adamant that no one has to suffer in silence or be defined by the world’s holy grail. No one has to be ashamed of or confused about any part of themselves; for each of us is much more than just our physical characteristics. Indeed, we are made for a beautiful purpose to not only be discovered but to be lived with hope, love, and grace.