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  Bad Experiences & Eating Disorders


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 students:

  • Isolation
  • 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 and practices)

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 and acceptance
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 attractiveness

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 of origin
(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 give support
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.

Boston College Eating Awareness Team
Last Updated: January 28, 2002