Reviewed by Katie Farden
Cramming down twelve reheated pancakes, half a dozen doughnuts, and a loaf of buttered French bread, Stephanie Covington Armstrong starts to feel dizzy. Adding scoops of caramel swirl ice cream, she continues to binge, despite feeling like she could explode. She wants to punish herself.
In her autobiography Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, Covington Armstrong -- who grew up in a roach-infested Brooklyn apartment with a single mother too preoccupied with recruiting for the Communist Party to feed her three daughters -- offers gripping testimony that eating disorders don't only devastate the lives of privileged white girls. She takes readers from a youth of hoarding LaffyTaffy and raiding neighbors' fridges, to a bulimic adulthood of dating parasitic men and loathing herself, all the while maintaining a tone of eerie composure. "Normal black women were equipped to deal with the stress of their lives, and I decided I would be no different," she remembers calmly resolving when she awoke in a hospital bed after a suicide attempt. "I would be strong."
Ever since the night when she lay paralyzed as one of the few adults she trusted raped her, Stephanie has equated strength with silence and self-denial. When her isolation grew intolerable, she tried to numb the pain by inhaling fast food and seeking the approval of disinterested men.
Her race and class background acted as a "shield" against criticism of her voracious appetite -- neither friends nor family raised an eyebrow when she would swallow more than half a dozen buttered rolls at a sitting. "Because I was a black girl with natural hair who grew up below the poverty line," she hypothesizes, "no one ever suspected I could be bulimic."
Though she spices her narrative with Brooklyn slang and dry humor, Covington Armstrong bares a raw truth: Gone untreated, bulimia destroys lives. But she goes further, raising the added question of whether bulimia might be destroying even more lives than we thought. What becomes of women and girls who find that treatment for eating disorders is financially impossible or socially unacceptable? Stephanie never understood the gravity of her "little eating problem," when she used to hike up hundreds of city blocks each day to slim her thighs. Knowing what she now knows, she suspects that many other young women of color are denying or disguising their illnesses.
And she can understand why. Broke, puffy-faced and exhausted, she finally resolved to break her daily cycle of starvation, overeating and vomiting, joining a 12-step support group. But she felt like a "melanin-enriched" alien in a room filled with waiflike, affluent white women. Yet despite the racial tension she encountered, she sticks with the program and slowly pries herself from the grasp of her sickness.
Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat enriches the genre of eating disorder narratives by diversifying the chorus of voices. Covington Armstrong's story emboldens women of all colors who might otherwise have remained quiet to voice their lived experiences with food.
Books mentioned in this post