How is it different for AHANA women?
Eating disorders among AHANA college women are often associated with their
very complex social status in the United States. Whether an AHANA woman
is racially distinct, ethnically distinct, or comes from another country--to
the extent she is of a minority, her experience in American society at
large (and certainly the microcosm of Boston College) will be influenced
by all the ramifications and implications of being "different".
For many AHANA women, it is their physical different-ness that makes them
subject to racism.
The challenges of being an AHANA student
Stresses associated with being an AHANA student at a predominantly White
institution are cause enough to trigger the onset of an eating disorder.
AHANA students at B.C. will commonly have some of the following experiences-experiences
which are both stressful and not typically felt by Caucasian majority
- The "fishbowl" effect of feeling conspicuous and much observed
- Acts and attitudes of prejudice and discrimination against them
- Being the target of stereotypes
- The press to acculturate (to modify their cultural identification
These issues may cause ongoing and considerable distress that can show
up in problems with distorted eating or body image.
Not just different, but conflicting cultural standards for beauty
The fact that many AHANA women are bicultural (meaning that they carry
in them the influences and identifications of two different cultures)
can complicate and stress their personal experience even more. A common
trigger for eating disorders in AHANA women is conflicting cultural standards
for beauty and acceptance. A young woman's culture of origin, or the culture
with which she mainly identifies, may hold one set of standards for beauty;
but thrust into the environment of Boston College, she is met with another
set of standards altogether. She may have been very pleased with her full-figured
body, which always seemed attractive in her world; yet now she is finding
that thin and muscular is prized, while soft and round is criticized.
Since she wants very badly to fit in here, she may feel she should change
how she looks-whether or not her body is actually suited to a different
shape. Soon she may find her eating behavior has become disrupted and
unnatural because she is so much going against her own natural inclinations.
Internalization of harmful messages
Ideas of beauty that don't fit the norm are often put down by people who
can't relate to them and instead see them as strange. Women commonly internalize
this as a devaluing of their images and ideals of attractiveness. Preferences
which normally have brought a woman pride and a feeling of being appreciated,
may become something she feels embarrassment about. If a young woman lacks
sufficient validation of her own culture's ideas of beauty, her social
identity (that based on culture, race, ethnicity), and even her sense
of self, may be eroded. This puts her at risk for disturbed eating.
AHANA women who are most vulnerable to developing eating disorders:
- Those who are or have been separated from their primary ethnocultural
group for a significant amount of time
- Foster children reared by White mothers
- Those acclimating to a different culture
- Those who study abroad or who are in exchange programs
- Those with a eurocentric/dominant culture perception of beauty and
Keys to recovery
(1) Awareness of encountering the above social stressors, and having related
emotional pressures with impacts on body image and eating
(2) Maintaining or establishing a positive connection to one's culture
(3) Developing healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress
(4) Locating reliable nutritional information relevant to college life
(5) Talking with other supportive peers and/or a professional who can
Harris, D.J. and Kuba, S.A. (1997). Ethnocultural identity and eating
disorders in women of color. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice,
288, 4, 341-347.