Corazón Tierra, 43, began developing an eating disorder when she was only eight years old.
As an immigrant from Puerto Rico, she felt like her physical appearance didn’t fit into American culture. “When I came here, it became more complicated. We’re not beautiful according to the standard,” she says.
Tierra also felt pressure from her mother to be thin. “The only territory I had to control was my body.”
Her eating disorder continued unnoticed when she was a teenager. When she was about 18, she weighed only 85 pounds. She hadn’t gained weight since she was 12 years old.
Tierra feels that there is a contradiction in her culture when it comes to food and body image. “There is a very mixed message,” she says. “There is so much attention on food, but then everyone is concerned about weight.
Ovidio Bermudez, M.D., chief medical officer and medical director of child and adolescent services at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado, says the notion that Latinas are less susceptible to eating disorders may have been statistically true at one time but is now an absolute myth.
“Ethnicity was able to offer protection from the development of an eating disorder. At one point it was true, but is a myth today. That protectiveness has eroded,” Bermudez says. “Latina women and Latino men today are as much at risk as the Caucasian population.”
Dr. Marisol Perez, a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders and associate professor at Texas A&M University, says the reason for this misconception was because Latinas were not included in the research at the time. “Historically, it was thought to be a white upper class phenomenon,” she says. “And most research was conducted among this population.”
But recent studies have found that Latinas have eating disorders and body image concerns at rates comparable to or greater than non-Latina whites.
“If you look at the research literature, the perception is not well-founded,” says Deb Franko, professor of counseling & applied educational psychology and associate dean at Northeastern University.
In the study, “Considering J.Lo and Ugly Betty: a qualitative examination of risk factors and prevention targets for body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and obesity in young Latina women,” Franko and her colleagues found that the college-aged Latinas in their focus groups struggled with conflicting cultural expectations. “The messages from their families that larger bodies are beautiful are bumping against a more Caucasian white culture that promotes a thin body ideal,” Franko says.
Some experts believe that acculturation also plays an important role. “The prevalence goes up for each generation that is here in the U.S.,” Perez says.
Bermudez believes this shift is also a result of globalization and the easy access to mainstream culture. “We know that Latina women are more and more vulnerable,” he says.
Sometimes, however, Hispanic women with eating disorders may not necessarily be concerned about weight. “Body dissatisfaction is different for Latinas,” Perez says. Because of this, they may be missed in health screenings. Additionally, the stigma of seeking psychological help and the high cost of treatment may be barriers in seeking care.
“We are barely scratching the surface of prevention,” Bermudez says. “I do think that debunking the myth is necessary. We should be making people aware of the reality and informing families of what they can do.”
Parents can help prevent the development of eating disorders by learning to detect changes in behavior. Some early indicators, Perez says, are rigid rules about food, displeasure with their body, baggier clothes, and going to the bathroom after eating.
“Parents can teach their children to accept their bodies. They should really strive to include compliments about their other qualities like personality and leadership skills,” she says.
Edie Hernandez Putt, PsyD, LPC, believes that mothers also play a pivotal role in their daughters’ relationship with food. “Girls are ripe to words, language, and behaviors of their mothers. We should be watching how we talk about food,” she says.
If parents are worried their children may be suffering from an eating disorder, Perez suggests looking for resources at Academy for Eating Disorders and the National Eating Disorders Association. Organizations like these are also becoming increasingly interested in Latinas and other women of color.
As an eating disorder survivor, Tierra now uses her experiences to raise awareness about eating disorders among Latinas. “There are so many body image issues that we need to address,” she says. “We need to start seeing ourselves from the inside.”
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and a contributor for The Huffington Post and other publications. Her poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Witness, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and many others. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com