An estimated 30 million people in the United States have eating disorders. It would seem as though ample resources should be available to a demographic this large, but Gloria Lucas says this is not the case. Lucas fought for years to validate and treat her disorder, which began when she was only 10—a daunting battle she believes she would have been won quicker if she were white. There was no space in conversations about eating disorders for someone who looked like her, Lucas said, and she has since acted. She created Nalgona Positivity Pride, a support group for people of color living with “eating problems.” The organization is still in its infancy but has already been featured in NPR and even has its own Etsy shop. Lucas spoke to Spare Change News about her experience and how she’s fighting to change the conversation about eating disorders.
SCN: Tell me about your personal experience with eating disorders and why you decided to create this organization.
I remember starting to binge eat at 10. I remember eating while angry, eating for comfort. When I was 17, it developed further into bulimia. It was really bad and no one knew. I think some people might have had suspicions in high school because they heard me, but besides that, at home, no one knew. I just felt trapped. I never had any visibility in regard to someone like me having an eating disorder. I never heard anyone from my background talk about it or see anything in the media about brown girls getting eating disorders. There was no representation of myself. It wasn’t until my early 20s that the eating disorder really took over my life. I couldn’t keep up with work and it was effecting my relationship with my partner at that time. I just knew I was not doing well. That’s when I decided I wanted to do something about it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do regular treatment because I worked. I had to pay my bills. I couldn’t just take time off for treatment. I didn’t have that luxury. Before I went through recovery, I was receiving mental health services, but like I said, I never told anyone because there was no space for me. I was denied insurance, so during that time I didn’t have any access. I was 18 or 19 and couldn’t even get basic care. I remember that I saw this flyer in the library on local treatment near a hospital and I called. I think that was the first time for me that I did something about it. But when I called, they asked me what insurance I had. When I said I didn’t have anything, they said they couldn’t help me. They didn’t even offer me any other types of resources, such as Overeaters Anonymous, anything. It was just “sorry, we can’t help you.” That was it. I finally did get some insurance from work, but I couldn’t take time off to do the intensive treatment. My schedule didn’t even allow me to go to counseling sessions. The providers themselves were not people of color, and that gave me reason to not feel comfortable.
I created the support group last year because when I was going to Overeaters Anonymous, I couldn’t really see anyone like myself there. It was predominately older, white people. I always felt like I didn’t fit in, so I wanted to create something that was for us and by us. There were things about OA that I liked and took from, like the format of meetings. But my group is not 12 step because that can either really, really work for someone or really, really not work for someone else. It’s free, anonymous and held once a month. It’s open to people of all gender identities as long as they are people of color or indigenous. We read, do open sharing and accept donations at the end. Our location is in a community where there are a lot of people of color, it’s wheelchair friendly and it’s right next to the metro line. I tried to make it as accessible as possible. I also changed the name because before, it was called a support group for people of color with eating disorders, but I switched it to eating problems because it sounds more open. I feel it will make people more comfortable to come to the group.
SCN: Do you think your experience would have been different had you been white?
I feel like if maybe they’d seen me as a white woman—like, for instance, when I called, they could hear my accent—but had I stepped into their office as a thin, white woman, I think yes. I think sympathy can be racist in terms of people feeling more sorry for a white woman crying than a black or brown woman crying. I think it would have been different. I think in regard to my insurance company I had through work, they were more open to me being a person of color because they had other clients of color. But in terms of the first time I tried to get treatment, yes, I do think it would have been different if I’d been a white, thin woman.
SCN: The National Eating Disorder Association says there haven’t been many conclusive studies on people of color with eating disorders, partially because of reporting biases and also because people of color might be viewed as immune to having them especially if they are part of a culture that has a heavy emphasis on celebrating food. Is this an idea you’ve come into contact with?
Yeah, and that was mainly from my family and friends because again, I didn’t have much experience in professional treatment with my disorder. I’m sure if I had been able to seek more treatment, I would have experienced more of that. But I did feel that because I’m a person of color, I couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder. I think my family didn’t understand why.
SCN: How do you deal with people who don’t believe you? How do you go to someone who’s never heard of an eating disorder before to understand what it is?
I think once you get into detail explaining, not going through and defining each disorder, explaining the symptoms or the science of an eating disorder without classifying as one or the other. I feel like a lot of people can identify with that. It just makes sense to them that way. When we move away from these labels, people can say wait, I’ve seen this or I’ve done this. And then they start questioning their relationship with food. That takes it to another personal level. I think talking about it in a different approach is very helpful. It also depends who I’m speaking to. I feel I get more resistance from the white community than my own community. I feel like I always have to validate. Just because I’m not thin, just because I don’t have anorexia, just because I’m not white doesn’t mean that I don’t have an eating disorder.
SCN: On your website, you discuss being raised Jehovah’s Witness but say you eventually left the faith. Was there any religious basis to your family’s not understanding your eating disorder?
My bulimia didn’t take effect until after I left. But I do feel that in my case, religion was a stressor to my identity and the way I felt about myself and my mental health. The Kingdom Hall I went to was in Spanish, so the same lack of representation existed there because nobody talked about [eating disorders]. When I finally told my mom, she had no idea and didn’t know a lot about it. There isn’t information going around [about eating disorders] in communities of color. There’s more a focus on what to eat or to not eat sugary foods. Nonprofits are doing that type of work in communities of color, but they’re not talking about eating disorders. They’re not saying “maybe your child is overeating because they have an eating disorder.” It’s more “your kid is eating a lot because they just eat a lot and they like food” and not that they could have an issue. So being a Jehovah’s Witness, I feel, for me personally, was a large stressor in my identity and how my gender was viewed, one that was not equal, one that was inferior. So I think all of that brought an identity crisis, especially when I left. I think for my mom it was just “you need to do more praying for the healing to happen. You need to come back to God. You have an eating disorder because you’re all out of balance and you need God back in your life.” And I thought, well, God is part of the problem here! (laughs)
SCN: The answer to this might be a bit obvious, but what other struggles do people of color face in terms of media representation?
If we’ve never seen or heard of another person of color struggling, we don’t get that validation. Because of that, we can go more time not questioning our relationship with our food. Not having that validation can only help make the circumstances with our eating disorder worse because we don’t think about it when we don’t see it. And because our community doesn’t see it, they can’t see us having an eating disorder either.
SCN: How do you think modern day feminism and body-positive movements could be more inclusive of people of color?
Oh my god, where do I start? The mainstream body positive movement doesn’t go deep enough. It doesn’t cover what it needs to cover. For instance, we have a lot of body positive people talking about fashion. That’s a great way to empower, but they never talk about who’s making these clothes. Just because stores [in the US] offer plus size clothing doesn’t mean it’s empowering to other women in the world. There’s an intersectional understanding, and I feel people don’t connect things like Black Lives Matter or fights against anti-immigration movements. People don’t connect that all of that is us reclaiming the right to exist and have overall well being. For people of color, body positivity is a lot more political because our bodies have been seen as disposable, as dirty, as reckless, as unintelligent. Body positivity for us is saying that we have a right to take up space and our bodies our valuable. We have a lot of resiliency in our ancestral lineage and we just need a chance to celebrate or acknowledge that. For white women, it’s a lot about being beautiful. That can be supportive but it’s different from wanting to be loved and to not be seen as disposable. Body positivity isn’t just about being beautiful. I’m not sure what they’re talking about, “beautiful.” Are they trying to talk about white-centric beauty? Or beauty that’s been colonized? I don’t know. I keep seeing white, thin women in the body positive movement talking about fat oppression or racism and it’s like, that’s not your story to talk about. Why aren’t you giving room to others like myself? I feel like people of color, trans people and queer people don’t get the same amount of credit for our work and a lot of people talk for us. The mainstream body positive movement is not connecting the necessary things. Body positivity for me is more political. We’ve been told our bodies are not significant.
SCN: It sounds like you’ve put a lot of effort into making your own work inclusive. What other plans do you have for your support group?
Lately, we’re working with other groups to change what professional treatment and providers look like. There’s a lot of racism, there’s a lot of privilege, that goes with treatment. Things are changing, and we needed those changes a long time ago.