Historical Trauma, Racism and Eating Disorders in the U.S.

By Gloria Lucas

During my eating disorder healing journey, I felt the need to find out why I developed an eating disorder. With the common belief that only white women develop eating disorders in the U.S., I was not what people considered a typical case. As a Xicana (American-born woman with a Mexican-Indigenous descent) who didn’t develop anorexia but bulimia and binge eating, I just felt that my reasons for developing an eating disorder had a deeper root.

While reading, “A Hunger So Wide And So Deep: A Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems” by Becky Thompson, it really made me think about the connection between history and eating disorders. In her book, Thompson talks about the lack of body autonomy black people experienced during slavery and how the legacy of slavery still impacts the black community today. When I read this I asked myself, how has colonialism impacted me? As a person with migrant parents that experienced the vast impact of acculturation and systemic racism, how much of my parent’s trauma have I embodied? Having an Indigenous lineage from a country that was violently impacted by European colonialism, I wondered how much trauma had accumulated in my body over the generations that, in return, influenced me?

These questions led me to research historical trauma (also known as intergenerational trauma), which is, “is a constellation of characteristics associated with massive cumulative group trauma across generations, similar to those found among Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants (Brave Heart).” For the most part, historical trauma research has been coined and carried out in Native American populations, but I feel that this information is applicable to Indigenous people of Mexico, Central America and South America because we have experienced similar European colonization. Historical trauma responses include “anxiety, intrusive trauma imagery, depression, elevated mortality rates from cardiovascular diseases as well as suicide and other forms of violent death, psychic numbing and poor affect tolerance, and unresolved grief (Brave Heart).”

Considering there are some similarities between eating disorders and historical trauma,there is very little research or information linking both subjects together. Why? Research ignorance and bias. For the past 30 years, media and medicine have portrayed eating disorders as only affecting white, privileged, cis-gender women and this stereotype has dominated research. As it is, eating disorder research in non-white communities is scarce. It goes without saying that systemic racism also plays a large role in academia, medicine and medical research and that certain lives have more value than others due to sociopolitical class.

What is really alarming about current professional eating disorder education is that there is no coverage on the role that systems of oppression have on people with marginalized identities. US culture has a really hard time addressing social issues like racism and transphobia and this is reflected heavily in the eating disorders world.People of color and Indigenous people experience high levels of institutional racism and this plays a role in people’s mental health. This is alarming because not acknowledging racism and the impact of other forms of social systemic discrimination in people’s life means not fully accepting people’s experiences. Ultimately, when providers do not grasp oppression they limit the quality of their services, therefore impacting the client’s overall success and recovery.

We are in a time and age where we need to put discomfort aside and start having conversations about the violent impact of inequality. One step that everyone can take to help people’s journeys to healing is educating oneself by doing more active listening. Providers can find a great check-off list here if they are interested in making their services more culturally relevant to all. Medical research and employment in the eating disorder field needs to more accurately reflect the kinds of people that struggle with eating disorders while respecting the importance of community-led work done by people with marginalized identities.