Guest author Kim Tran is a graduate student in the Ethnic Studies program at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work examines refugee communities, transnational labor, gender and queer studies. She is originally from San Jose, California, a proud survivor of California’s public schools and universities who aspires to think alongside young people in classrooms and community. Her work can be found at www.kimtranpoetry.com

About two years ago I found myself slumped over my toilet, gasping for breath on my bathroom floor.  It was the last time I binged and purged.  Since then I’ve taken numerous steps toward recovery.  However, as a woman of color my path toward recovery has been limited by the literature and language of standard clinical models of treatment that fail to address the world as I experience it; a place in which people are divided by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
I am absolutely not saying anyone should avoid therapy or traditional therapeutic models, or that there are no therapists that address these forces.  I am saying that in my personal encounters with clinicians, most connect disordered eating exclusively to individual experiences.  For instance, I’ve had social workers say to me “So you say you have disordered eating, tell me about your parents' abusive relationship”.  Although, it’s important to have these conversations, I find it just as important to place them within the context of a world that condones violence against women, white supremacy, and the bullying of LGBTQ youth.  These kinds of exclusively personal questions deny the realities of oppression that often shape why we habitually starve and/or binge and purge.
For me, the most authentic healing has required looking at the societal causes of my experience as a marginalized person of color.  Domestic abuse, economic uncertainty due to my mother’s total lack of job security and the weight of being queer in a conservatively religious household led to feeling irrevocably unstable.  Patriarchal violence in an impoverished home along with being queer in a world that fails to recognize same-gender love and internalized racism led me to control the only thing I could, my consumption of food. Thus, I need to engage with disordered eating as a response to systems of oppression that impact many people of color in complex ways.  

I still see disordered eating as connected to a failure to love our bodies and thus ourselves.  And of course, I’m not claiming immunity to the insecurity associated with watching Kate Upton scarf a cheeseburger in a bikini.  Yet I’ve also come to realize seeing different body types on TV will do little to change the fact that I and many others have internalized white, thin, cisgendered (when biological sex correlates with gender presentation i.e. style of clothing and hair) and feminine as the epitome of beauty.  As a result I feel we need to expand our understanding of the recovery process. 

This may mean that conversations with therapists include honest dialogue about race, ethnicity, class, and gender in order to confront the combination of factors that gave rise to disordered eating in women of color.  It may also mean incorporating social justice work to mobilize against the forces that produce internalized racism and prevent healthful eating. For example, broadening recovery might entail helping to bring healthy food to communities and working to end violence against women or the LGBTQ community.  Finally, I am not providing an alternative clinical treatment, but simply asking us to consider disordered eating as at least partially indicative of sexism, racism, and classism.  By radically re-thinking how disordered eating originates, we can creatively and collectively imagine new pathways toward recovery.

 


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