Feature illustration by Jorge Balarezo
In your lifetime, you’ve probably known someone who has an eating disorder or you have struggled with one yourself. As many as 10 million people in the United States have an eating disorder. Let’s look first at the most common types of eating disorders.
Anorexia nervosa is the severe restriction of caloric intake; it does not necessarily mean eating food that is low in calories or fat content. It is also characterized by a fear of gaining weight and the refusal to return to a “normal” body weight.
Bulimia nervosa means the conscious decision to rid one’s body of significantly more calories than are taken in. The method of “purging” the body can vary from vomiting to the use of laxatives to excessive exercise.
Binge eating and bulimia are almost always related. Binge eating is the process of a period of food restriction followed by over-consumption. Binge eating can also occur independently of bulimia.
Disordered eating, which was recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, refers to a wide range of other conditions, including the obsessive counting of calories (but still consuming an arguably healthy number) or only eating one type of food. Disordered eating is often related to other mental health conditions, such as depression and can be a precursor to an eating disorder. While the majority of eating disorders affect women, it is not uncommon for men to suffer from these conditions as well.
There is no one cause of eating disorders, although they can often be linked to the desire to change one’s body type, almost always to be thinner regardless of the effects on health. However, the onset of an eating disorder can also be related to the desire for control and not necessarily body image. Rather than wanting to be thin, the person suffering from the disorder feels the need to exercise control over an area of their life, usually because they feel overwhelmed by other issues.
Though these conditions have often been thought of as mainly affecting Caucasian women in the United States, eating disorders also affect an increasing number of Latinas. A curvier body type has traditionally been valued in Latino culture, giving the false impression that Latinas would be impervious to the pressure to be thinner. However, as Latinos become more acculturated with American culture, some Latinas feel that it is necessary to adhere to different standards of beauty; the disparity between the “old” way of thinking about body image and the “new” one can lead to internal conflicts that express themselves as eating disorders. There are significantly more eating disorders being found within each successive generation in the Latino community, and some studies argue that the rate of bulimia is even higher among Latina women than Caucasian women. The hyper-sexualized rhetoric that surrounds women’s bodies also contributes to the pressure placed on Latinas to have “desirable” bodies.
There are many resources available for people suffering from eating disorders and an increasing number that are aimed at the Latina community. The “No Te Hagas Pequeña” campaign hopes to spread the message that Latina women don’t need to “make themselves smaller” to be desirable or to fit in to the dominant idea of what women should look like. While eating disorders can affect anyone, the rising number found in the Latina community should be cause for concern; however, with the increase in attention and studies dedicated to this very issue, there will hopefully soon be even more sources of help and a better understanding of the root causes of these conditions and their affect on Latina women.