How the Pressure of “Black Excellence” Can Lead to Eating Disorders

April 18, 2024

February is Black History Month, a month designated to honor the specific contributions and achievements of Black Americans and other members of the global African Diaspora. For many Black Americans, this is a time of celebration and pride, as we honor those that not only defied odds; but broke barriers. As we reflect on the past, we are often inspired to imagine and aspire for a greater future. However, what is often forgotten and rarely mentioned is the emotional toll this work has taken, and the pressure we face to “carry the torch” and push further. Below, Dr. Whitney Trotter outlines three distinct ways the drive for “Black Excellence” can impact one’s susceptibility to developing an eating disorder, and the specific ways we can break this cycle and facilitate healing. - Giva Wilkerson, Head of Community Care, Arise

In the pursuit of success and resilience, the Black community often faces unique pressures and expectations. The concept of "Black excellence" celebrates achievements, perseverance, and the ability to overcome systemic barriers. However, beneath the surface of this narrative lies a darker reality: the silent struggle with eating disorders. By now, most of us are aware of how eating disorders manifest through a biopsychosocial lens; however, for some in the Black community, the pressure of achievement and excellence can lead to dysregulation and increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder. 

Unveiling the Pressure Cooker: Perfectionism and Expectations & Historical Trauma: 

From a young age, Black individuals may internalize the message that they must work twice as hard to achieve half as much. This mentality, while driving ambition and determination, can also breed perfectionism and unrealistic expectations. The pressure to excel academically, professionally, and personally can become overwhelming, leading to a relentless pursuit of perfection in all aspects of life. In addition, centuries of systemic racism and oppression have left a profound impact on the mental health of Black individuals. Historical trauma, including experiences of slavery, segregation, and discrimination, can contribute to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and disordered eating behaviors.

The Mask of Strength: Hiding Behind Success

In a society that often portrays Black individuals as strong and resilient, admitting vulnerability or seeking help can be stigmatized. As a result, those struggling with eating disorders may suffer in silence, masking their pain behind a facade of success. The pressure to maintain appearances and uphold the image of strength can exacerbate feelings of shame and isolation, further fueling disordered eating behaviors.

Beauty Standards and Identity: Navigating Complex Terrain

Beauty standards within the Black community are multifaceted, influenced by factors such as skin tone, hair texture, and body shape. While celebrating Black beauty and embracing cultural heritage is empowering, it can also create pressure to conform to narrow ideals of attractiveness. The desire to fit these standards, coupled with societal expectations of achievement, can contribute to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating patterns.

Breaking the Cycle: Cultivating Self-Compassion and Support

Addressing the link between Black excellence and eating disorders requires a multifaceted approach that prioritizes mental health and well-being:

  • Redefining Success: Challenging traditional notions of success and recognizing that true excellence encompasses self-care, balance, and authenticity.
  • Destigmatizing Help-Seeking: Creating safe spaces within the Black community to discuss mental health and eating disorders openly, without fear of judgment or shame.
  • Cultivating Self-Compassion: Encouraging individuals to embrace their humanity, imperfections, and vulnerabilities with kindness and self-compassion.
  • Promoting Inclusive Representation: Advocating for diverse representation in media, healthcare, and other spaces to validate the experiences of Black individuals with eating disorders and combat harmful stereotypes.

Conclusion: Striving for Wholeness and Healing

The pressures of Black excellence can be suffocating, but they do not define our worth or dictate our path. By acknowledging the link between achievement and eating disorders, we can begin to unravel the complexities of this issue and cultivate a culture of compassion, acceptance, and support. This journey toward healing and wholeness is not easy, but it is necessary. Let us stand together as a community, lifting each other up, and embracing our humanity in all its beautiful complexity. Together, we can redefine success, break free from the shackles of perfectionism, and embrace the true essence of Black excellence: resilience, authenticity, and self-love

As we commemorate Black History Month, let's acknowledge the resilience, strength, and beauty of the Black community. Let's also recognize the importance of addressing the intersection of Blackness and eating disorders, breaking the silence, and fostering a culture of inclusivity, acceptance, and support for all individuals, regardless of race or ethnicity. Together, we can create a future where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued, free from the constraints of harmful stereotypes and societal expectations. This Black History Month, let's commit to embracing diversity, celebrating individuality, and promoting healing and empowerment for all.