Fat Black boys are failed by their doctors, failed by nutritionists, failed by a society that doesn’t see us as deserving of treatment and therapy.
CW: mentions of eating disorders, medical discrimination, ob*sity, and more.
I vividly remember multiple visits to my pediatrician that were centered solely around my eating. As with any parent, my mom scheduled these appointments after learning that I would go all day—sometimes even two—without eating. At those visits, we’d talk for long periods of time about what I ate, when I ate, and why I wouldn’t eat. Embarrassingly, I told my pediatrician that I didn’t eat because I didn’t want to become any fatter than I already was. In one appointment, I remember her responding this with, “I understand that, Da’Shaun, but if you don’t eat your body will assume you’re starving yourself and will store all those fats—this will make you gain more weight.” What I didn’t want to tell her, however, is that I didn’t want to get fatter because I was already increasingly antagonized for my weight and this translated to being judged whenever I did eat.
For all of my life, I have been fat. Even at my smallest, I was larger than everyone else around me. A lot of kids loved me, and I was very argumentative so I never necessarily allowed anyone who didn’t love me to bully me, but I was picked on often for being fat. And for eating. Eating is an essential part of life. If we do not eat, our bodies do not get the necessary nutrients they need and our organs fail us. In other words, without food we have no energy, no growth, and ultimately, no breath in our lungs. But I was too fat to eat, and nothing I ate was ever right. The apple was too small to have any significance and the salad had just a little-too-much dressing to matter, but I couldn’t openly enjoy the pizza. There’s no way I could publicly eat those cookies. So I didn’t eat—at least not in front of others.
I’d grown such a fear of eating in front of others that the only solution I saw was to not eat at all. I was in elementary school.
By this time, so early in my life, I already had such a toxic relationship with food and eating. I actively ate less so that I would not be berated, verbally abused, mistreated, or judged for nourishing my body. What I’d internalized was that everyone else thought that I should die. And as a kid who also lived with chronic major depressive disorder, I didn’t much disagree.
RECOMMENDED: Forcing Children To Lose Weight Is Child Abuse
In the midst of this, while still in elementary school, I was diagnosed with a severe gastrointestinal disorder. Before anyone noticed the severity of this, I’d lost upwards of 25 pounds, give or take. My weight was dropping rapidly because of how this disorder was eating away at me, but I was happy that everyone else around me was finally happy with my body. When the GI tract problem was first discovered, I was immediately flown to Chapel Hill’s hospital to be operated on. This was the first of three times I was hospitalized for this disorder between my elementary and middle school years; twice at Chapel Hill and once at Duke.
This was all horrifying, but I still got no better with eating. I was afraid to not eat, I was afraid to eat too much, and I was afraid of possibly eating the wrong thing. Developing that disorder only gave me more guidelines on how to remain in a relationship that was already harmful and was only worsening by the day. I eventually gained all of the weight back and sat in countless appointments with varying GI specialists, nutritionists, and my primary care doctor where each of them harped on my weight for the entirety of our appointment. Suddenly I was back at square one: no solutions for my eating and more internalized shame for my weight.
As I am working to complete the manuscript for my book, I’m being pushed to reflect on my childhood more. During this period, I’ve come to realize that no one ever referred to what I was experiencing as disordered eating. Not a single doctor or other medical professional that listened to me talk about my relationship to food and eating considered that I might have an eating disorder. In fact, when my mom once named ED as a possibility to one of the doctors, without hesitation, he responded: “That’s not likely, as eating disorders aren’t typically seen in boys, especially when they are African-American and overweight.”
These are the memories imprinted in my brain. While information around eating disorders and their impact on Black communities were still developing during my formative years, it’s disappointing that I went through all of those years with what I’m sure was an eating disorder and was written off simply because I was perceived as a boy, Black, and fat. I recognize this not only as a violence of the medical industrial complex, but also as a violence only permitted and sustained through the gendering of medical issues and treatment, as well as the cissexism, biodeterminism, anti-Blackness and anti-fatness at the very foundation of these institutions.
I was failed. Failed by every doctor who saw my body as an opportunity to support their abuse, and didn’t see me as alive enough to recognize that what I truly needed was treatment and a therapist. Failed by nutritionists committed to reproducing the violence of the diet industrial complex rather than committing themselves to my wellness.
My hope is that people who parent fat Black boys read this and look for the signs; that they advocate for their children at an early age. I hope that doctors and nutritionists who approach their job with a Health at Every Size (HAES) framework read this and work diligently to ensure that more fat Black boys are not failed by people tasked with caring for their bodies and being.
Not all fat Black boys know how to eat. Some of them have eating disorders, too.
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