Airing “Dirty Laundry”: A Latina Woman’s Fight Against Eating Disorder Stigma
Raquel Reichard | On 30, Jul 2013
Trigger warning for eating disorder, mental health and suicide
While most of my friends were running to third base or performing the steps to Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time choreography, an 8-year-old me was staring at myself in the mirror, noting all the parts of my body that needed to be erased.
By middle school I realized that those parts that I hated so much could disappear if I just stopped eating. So I did.
I started purging in high school and continued throughout my first two years of college.
I didn’t realize I was suffering from an eating disorder — or “worse,” a mental illness – until I sought professional help.
I was 19 years old, and after a decade of suicidal ideation, I had finally decided to take my own life.
My story is one historically told by white, middle to upper-class women. Mental illnesses, like eating disorders and suicidal ideation, are generally not the province of young Latinas, or so “they” say.
Last week, Erika L. Sanchez highlighted the high depression and suicide rates among young girls in the Latino community in an article for Al Jazeera. The individual stories she spotlighted and the statistics she shared, rang so true for me, and I knew it was time that I opened up about one of the darkest aspects of my life, one that’s been hidden to all but three people.
Although 13.5 percent of Latina female students in grades nine through 12 admitted attempting suicide, which is significantly higher than black girls (8.8 percent) and non-Hispanic girls (7.9 percent), the topic is extremely taboo in Latino communities.
There is a stigma associated with mental illness in the Latino community that leaves sufferers feeling ashamed, forcing young Latinas to hurt in silence.
In high school, I decided to open up to my parents about my self-hate, purging and thoughts of suicide. I knew there was something wrong with me. I wanted to go away. I wanted to disappear. I needed to die. That was the only way. I wanted my parents, the people I cared about more than anything, to understand that I loved them and that they never failed me; I was just no good and unworthy of this world.
Of course, they didn’t understand. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the notion that someone so “beautiful,” with stellar grades, vast talents and so much love to give could hate themselves to the point of self-destruction.
“El diablo is messing with your head,” they’d tell me. “Just pray, mama. Papa Dios is stronger than those demons lying to you.”
My strong faith in God had helped me put the knife down numerous times. But the hours I spent on my knees crying out for supernatural intervention wasn’t helping.
I hated myself. And as someone who was always told that I was the apple of God’s eye, I felt guilty for not appreciating that.
As I locked my door, stopped talking and closed myself up. My parents’ concern quickly grew to frustration. I was over their religious advice. That wasn’t working for me. This was going to be a lonely fight, I predicted. And it was.
My friends were aware of my body image issues. They knew I’d rather spend my days and nights locked in my room than at a pool or a movie theater. They understood that I suffered from extreme social anxiety, but they had no idea what I was battling. They still don’t.
My silence wasn’t peculiar, though.
In 2012, the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that there is greater stigma toward mental illnesses among non-whites, including Latinos, who often seek help from family members or priests before reaching out to professionals.
My story is recognized in white communities, but Latinas and other young girls and women of color are suffering from mental illnesses as well.
Although national statistics on Latinas with eating disorders are not available, it would be inaccurate and harmful to believe that Latinas do not suffer from eating disorders. Mental illnesses like eating disorders and the suicidal ideation that sometimes stems from these disorders hold no boundaries; they exist in all cultures.
Some researchers attribute the rise in eating disorders among Latinas to acculturation. As Latinas become more ingrained in the culture of the United States, researchers argue, they are likely influenced by the pressure to be thin. But, again, not much attention is afforded to Latinas when discussing eating disorders.
This is part of the problem.
If the media are telling Latinos that this is an issue only afflicting well-off white girls, they’ll never think to understand the complexities of mental illnesses or be prepared to handle them.
They also may not believe, even when their children open up to them, that this is really happening and that it deserves professional attention. In many Latino families, you don’t air your dirty laundry. You don’t talk to people about your problems.
But we need to.
We have to get over the stigma. It can’t continue to be the elephant in the room. Seeking professional help doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you are doing your absolute best to avoid failure. For some, it really is a matter of life and death.
Written by Raquel Reichard
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