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Eating Disorders From a South Asian Perspective

mental health disorder
4 min read

Eating disorders (ED) pop up in the media now and again, wearing lace, smudged eyeliners, and ailing waifish white bodies. They built a distinctively white image with Pro-Ana Twitter and movies like To the Bone. The eating disorder crisis — which affects 7.8% of the world — is viewed fetishistically and as a niche aesthetic. Despite organizations such as NEDA advocating for more research about the intersectional implications of the illness, the common representation in media is overwhelmingly white. These stereotypes also filter the ED recovery content in media and reinforce a restrictive vision of recovery. The homogenous recovery posts estrange WOC, trans and non-binary people, and men from the narrative about eating disorder recovery.

[Read related: Get Up Aisha, a wake up call for mental illness for South Asians]

Recovery Accounts on Instagram and Tik Tok

While recovering from ED, I have seen how the illness chokes people with a disillusioned sense of control and bloodies us with a cycle of hatred and disgust. But without any representation of ED beyond whiteness, I was blind to my self-destructive patterns. It is especially hard to break from these patterns when I grew up listening to aunties glorify thinness and praise my mother for her disordered eating and contempt for carbs. Refusing mithais on Holi and skipping breakfast were associated with self-determination and wellness. Though initially, these behaviors were endearing to me, they unsurprisingly transformed into rituals of loathing and sore limbs.
Eventually, I started breaking free from the clutches of my ED. But the specter of the illness still looms over my head and my Instagram feed. Many people recovering from EDs create recovery accounts. Their content includes positive affirmations and ‘What I Eat in A Day’ posts.

Though these accounts foster support during recovery, engaging with these posts, I often feel like an outsider, entangled in a community not meant for me. The demographic for these accounts is composed of white, cis women recovering from typical anorexia. Instagram rarely recommends WOC or plus-size accounts. And I have never seen any LGBTQ+ accounts. But, these discrepancies in ED representation are not self-contained in social media. Healthcare facilities and researchers discount the implications of race, gender, and sexuality daily. There is sparse research on the connections between EDs and intersectional identities.

[Read related: Men have body image issues too]

Ruminations about skin bleaching and comments about weight were more common topics of conversation than the weather growing up in Gurgaon. Disordered eating patterns such as purging and fasting were part of every Whatsapp thread about ‘Health.’ But, eating disorders were rarely mentioned. The lack of discussions about these mental illnesses and the apparent stigmatization of therapy in India led me to believe that I was immune to eating disorders. My ED, I thought, was controllable.

Of course, I was wrong. But once my ED began unraveling and overtaking my life, I knew that therapy was not an option until my body reflected the emaciated state of my mind. The “not-sick-enough” fallacy of anorexia doubled down on me due to the stigmatization of therapy in my house and culture.

Absence of POC and LGBTQIA+ Demographics from Research

In their article, Illena Peng explains how the lack of accommodations for cultural foods is symptomatic of a more significant issue with treatment. Peng accounts for the story of Remy Park. They say, “Remy Park, who runs the vegan food blog Veggiekins, recalled struggling to explain scallion pancakes — a Chinese savory, flaky, pan-fried flatbread — to her therapist when she was in treatment for her eating disorder. Eventually, she resorted to searching for a photo.” Peng also added, “After that session, Park found herself avoiding meals at her grandparent’s house and the foods that she connected with her family over.”

Even after I started therapy, the recovery process felt more estranged than ever. I had seen recovery accounts that detailed how they felt heard and seen by their therapist. To me, it felt like taking my therapist on a grand tour of my culture. Of the forty minutes, I spent twenty minutes explaining insignificant aspects of my life in India. Instead of focusing on my fear of home-cooked meals, I had to explain what ‘Bhindi’ and ‘Aloo Gobi’ meant. And, of course, I had to give recommendations for Indian restaurants nearby. These instances disconnected me from my journey. I observed ED recovery as an outsider whose food and culture was too complicated to be considered helpful. In those moments, forgoing my culture to become a white-passing anorexic patient felt like the only road to recovery.

Usually, my culture is a catch-all for my grievances and body-image issues. We rarely discuss the latent potential of cultural identities in treatment. And the meals on Instagram echo that homogeneity. Virtually no research exists on mode recovery in POC and LGBTQ+ bodies. Looking through ED recovery accounts, I rarely see ethnic foods. Oats topped with peanut butter or almond butter are the Grand Poobah of recovery foods. Protein bars, parfait bowls, and pancakes likewise oversaturate recovery accounts.

[Read related: Challenging suicide stigma]

These food items have merits and are rightfully included in recommended foods for recovery; they are dense in calories and nutritious. But, it would be ignorant to dismiss the white-centric considerations of the recovery plans.

ED Patient to Gym Rat Pipeline and other Disordered Patterns in Media Moreover, the “ED patient to gym rat pipeline” is pervasive in recovery accounts. Early in their journey, many recovery bloggers start exercising, explaining that they strive for strength, not thinness. Almost all accounts feature some form of weight or strength conditioning. The pervasiveness of this pipeline often pushes people to revert to their unhealthy relationship with exercise, motivated by the belief that guiltless exercising is a true signifier of a victory over ED. Though it might signal full recovery, usually, people rush into gyms too soon.

It is empowering to reclaim an ED habit for health and wellness. But often, the “gym rat” is embracing disordered patterns. These people count macros, emphasize protein-rich diets, and usually have one rest day. It is not unlike overexercising and calorie-counting days of their ED.
It is not true food freedom. And it sets up unrealistic expectations for recovery. Essentially, it influences people to exercise during treatment, sabotaging their progress to “prove” true freedom. It is also concerning given the predominance of eating disorders in weightlifters.

Demystifying the Illness

Mythologizing eating disorders as a “white woman’s disease” has halted the modicum of representation and aid available for POC and LGBTQ+ people. These disorders are steadily rising and silently enveloping people in their deadly grip. The appearance of EDs in marginalized identities is embroiled in post-colonial politics and the systemic repudiation of healthcare for LGBTQ+ and POC communities. Neglecting the impact of implicit biases on ED research and treatment rhetoric is discursive and dangerous. We cannot fight this disease without breaking down our skewed perception of eating disorders.

Helpful resources: