Many people from historically and presently minoritized communities are no stranger to being the only person with their identities in any given room. Unfortunately, experiences in eating disorder treatment are no exception.
Recent research has examined diversity among eating disorder professionals globally, finding that 89.6% of respondents identified as women, 84.1% as heterosexual, and 73% as white (Jennings Mathis et al., 2020). To me, these numbers come as no surprise. After working in an eating disorder treatment facility last year, I noticed the overwhelming homogeneity of my team. As a White, upper-class, cisgender, heterosexual female, I am afforded a lot of privileges due to the identities that I hold – one of those privileges was not having to notice the lack of diversity among my team members because everyone looked like me. I saw myself in my clients and in my colleagues – and thus, wasn’t forced to see the lack of representation in our workplace. Once I did see it, though, I couldn’t stop. My team of over 20 employees was entirely female and included only two women of color, neither of whom interacted directly with clients. We were largely thin and wealthy, all able bodied and none openly queer-identifying. We all looked the same. The composition of my team is only an indication of the broader issue at hand; Black and Brown bodies, fat bodies, disabled and differently abled bodies, queer bodies, poor bodies – none are accurately reflected or represented in the field of eating disorder treatment.
So, what does this mean for our clients? We know that eating disorders “don’t discriminate” – people of all identities, across racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic lines, suffer from eating disorders. Despite this, there is a vast disparity in the actual utilization of services among these minoritized groups. Why? One factor might be the lack of diversity among helping professionals. Not only might this act as a significant barrier to engaging in treatment, but it may also act as an added stressor for those who do get treatment as they wonder if any of their treatment providers can truly understand their experiences.
The question we must begin asking is: Do our treatment teams accurately reflect the diversity of experiences in the communities we aim to serve?
Disordered eating is not just a possibility for one small slice of our world. Affirming diversity must begin in our own facilities with our own treatment teams—not only due to the innate benefits of collaboration, but also to improve health equity. With the inclusion of diverse voices, diagnostic measures and screening can shift away from being tailored to wealthier, white, assigned female at birth women and move towards equitable detection of eating disorders in diverse patient populations. This diversity can begin to chip away at our cultural myths around what eating disorders are, who suffers from them, and who deserves treatment – and in turn, perhaps make treatment a more feasible, safe, sensitive, and supportive option for individuals from underrepresented populations.
Jennings Mathis, K., Anaya, C., Rambur, B., Bodell, L. P., Graham, A. K., Forney, K. J., Anam, S., & Wildes, J. E. (2020). Workforce Diversity in Eating Disorders: A Multi-Methods Study. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 42(12), 1068–1077. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193945920912396
Kim, N. (2018, February 20). How to address the troubling lack of diversity among eating disorders professionals. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/how-to-address-lack-of-diversity-eating-disorders-professionals
By: Hannah Wolfe
Hannah is 1st year MSW student at the School of Social Work, UNC-Chapel Hill. This is her first year as a research assistant in the Living F.R.E.E. Lab.