The Problem with Press-Releases (and over-generalizations)

Researchers at USC released a new report with findings that suggest that “Black Girls are 50% more likely to be bulimic than White Girls“.

This is the headline I found when doing my usual search for news related to eating disorders and body image issues. So, I followed the link because the headline struck me as unusual because in much of the research I have done, I don’t find many resources and studies being done on the overlap of race and body image and eating issues.

The first thing that struck me as “off” was the use of the word “girls”. I was going to ignore this, but I still find it problematic. Girl is often used to demean women, however it can also suggest are certain age group of women (i.e. 18 and under).  I would like to point out that there is another term available to use, that being young women. I would find it most helpful in understanding their findings if they numerically reported the ages of their surveyed population.

The study then goes on to compare those statistics with the statement “more than 9 million females suffer from Bulimia in this country”. So how does that compare to the findings of this new study, since that one focuses on “girls”. What percentage of the 9 million females are under the category of “girls”. Semantics are very important, especially when making bold statements that could potential overturn stereotypes and assumptions around eating disorders (the assumption being that eating disorders mainly affect white, upper class women).  Say what you mean (and I can say this because I get my own science writing criticized when I don’t properly and concisely detail what I’m studying). But that is only the beginning.

The results reveal that:

  • Black girls were 50 percent more likely than white girls to exhibit bulimic behavior, including both binging and purging. About 2.6 percent of black girls were clinically bulimic, compared to 1.7 percent of white girls. Overall, approximately 2.2 percent of the girls surveyed were clinically bulimic, close to the national average.
  • Black girls scored an average of 17 percentage points higher than their white counterparts on the widely used medical index gauging of the severity of the bulimia, the researchers found.
  • Girls from families in the lowest income bracket were significantly more likely to experience bulimia than their wealthier peers.
  • Bulimia affected 1.5 percent of girls in households where at least one parent had a college degree.
  • For girls whose parents had a high school education or less, the rate of bulimia was more than double — 3.3 percent were bulimic.

Wait a second –  I thought the survey was focusing on the racial statistics of bulimic behaviors, not class? I dont like the assertion that the rest of the statistics are making – that not only are black [young women] more likely to be bulimic, but also be from lower class and less educated backgrounds.

Yes, this IS important research that needs to be carried out – the intersections between gender, race and class, and how they influence disordered eating. But should it be carried out by economists when the headline is suggesting they are looking at race?

Whether or not they meant their findings to be interpreted this way, I still feel like this is sloppy presentation of the facts, and not enough thoughtful/careful separation between the demographics analyzed (those being race and class). Instead, it plays into the assumption that blacks (especially, black women) are bulimic and from low-income, uneducated backgrounds.Yes, I appreciate the part where they talk about how eating disorder surveys have been biased in the past because of sampling techniques (sampling those who have been treated, therefore the strong correlations between class and eating disorders, since those findings were based on individuals who can afford treatment) but they are just overall conflating black with poor, and it really bothers me. It should bother you too!

I recognize the sad fact, unfortunately due to racial oppression  nonwhite populations tend to be overrepresented in lower classes. However, racial and class demographics due not determine one another. For instance, if  the authors of the study did wanted to examine eating disorders among black women, then they ought to have included in their study black women of various economic and educational experiences. On the other hand, if they wanted to examine the impact of being in a lower class can have on the prevalence of eating disorders, they ought not to have implied that all people in that class are black.

Most importantly, have we stopped to think about why black young women would feel pressured to engage in disordered eating? Could it perhaps be the media’s dominance and reinforcement of ideals of femininity and beauty, those ideals that are established and maintained by racist patriarchy?

Bottom line: yay for research that is trying to be more mindful of how body image can transcend racial and economic boundaries. A big BOO for research that is not precise enough in stating its findings, and seems to reinforce assumptions surrouding class and race.