Shanetta McDonald's story is one familiar to millions of women in countries and communities all over the world. Yet it sheds a light on a strange misperception and prejudice in the way we talk about things like body image and disordered eating: Namely, that these are the issues of young, white women. In sharing her story so generously, McDonald dispels this obvious falsehood and reminds us that everyone is equally vulnerable, and all of us need allies. — Kelsey Miller
You can't choose the body you were given. But if you're like me, it might never occur to you to simply accept your shape. You can just change it. As a child, I had no concept of how my body looked. I was skinny and hit puberty much later than most of the girls in school. And at home, relatives innocently told me that I might not end up being "top- and bottom-heavy" like the other women in my family. In my mind, being small was an opportunity to stand out. Of course, genetics revealed that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. As a young Black girl, I was very aware of my culture and its iconic, hourglass-shaped women. You'd think I would have welcomed my own body growing into its natural curves. Yet, while most of my friends were working to get Tyra Banks' voluptuous shape, I was plastering photos of Halle Berry's lean, petite frame and Jessica Biel's abs of steel onto my vision board, next to the other things I wanted most: the L.A. city skyline and the entertainment publicists I aspired to be like. Although I desperately wanted a stick-thin body, my friends and family accepted my looks, and me, entirely. My girlfriends couldn't have cared less about my size or what I was (or wasn't) eating; they loved me for my ridiculously outgoing personality, crazy type-A habits, and ambition. Most of my peers were Hispanic or African-American, like myself. My body type was the norm and boys liked "something to grab onto." I was constantly trying to lose 10 pounds, but whenever I confessed this, I was met with reassurance that my body was absolutely fine. But I was never convinced.
I spent high school and my early 20s rigorously yo-yo dieting, over-exercising, and popping diet pills. Despite this fixation, I was able to excel professionally and after years of working in the trenches of PR, I finally fulfilled my dream of moving to Los Angeles to work for an amazing global agency. I should have been excited to start my career and life in my new city. But nothing took precedence over my full-time obsession. I compared my body to other women's, I aimed for lower numbers on the scale, and I focused on changing specific parts of my body that simply wouldn't be altered. Calorie-counting got me closer to my goal, but even at my smallest I was unhappy — as unhappy as I was at my normal size. There was always something I needed to improve: I wanted my 32DDD breasts to shrink and perk up, and my muscular thighs to stop fighting over space when I walked. A normal person may recognise this as insanity, but this was my normal. Still, I was miserable. I was a single girl in a great city, and every time I went to dinner, I sat in fear of veering off of my plan and eating the wrong thing. I would spend all day restricting, then inevitably binge. One day, the pain in my bulging stomach led me to my first purge. I wish I could say I felt shame, horror, or disgust, but it was the exact opposite. I was relieved. Now I understood that if I fell off my hamster wheel of dieting, I could reverse any damage done. I didn't see bulimia as the violent act of self-harm that it is. It was my quick fix. Meanwhile, I never asked myself why I wanted to be thin so badly. After all, I'd come to terms with other parts of my body — the faint stretch marks on my breasts and hips, my large hands and feet. Still, my mind insisted that other bodies were right and mine was wrong. Being occupied with self-loathing left little room to be grateful for what my body could do. One night, I found myself at a celebratory dinner with colleagues. It should have been fun, but I was a mess. I'd been in binge mode the entire day, and figured I might as well continue eating since my diet was already ruined. Halfway through the meal, I excused myself to the bathroom to ease my discomfort and purge. I was used to purging in public places and managed to always get in and out without attracting any attention. But suddenly, I heard a woman's voice outside the stall. "Oh no, dear," she said, with pity in her voice. "Fuck off," I muttered, pulled myself together, and went back to dinner. She may have thought I had a problem, but I still didn't.
I'd be lying if I said the thought, Black people don't have eating disorders didn't cross my mind. It did. But eating disorders don't discriminate, and navigating the world as a bulimic African-American woman is tough. We're portrayed as strong women — women who believe Black is beautiful, and filled with pride of our ancestral curves. We're supposed to appear confident and have it pulled together. In my experience, this was true in every area of my life — except when it came to my body. Looking back, my strongest moment was when I admitted I didn't have it together at all. My body was taking a beating, I was purging multiple times a day, and I could no longer properly digest food. After months of ignoring the problem, I finally diagnosed myself with acid reflux and went to the doctor to confirm my findings. He questioned why I — a seemingly healthy young woman — thought I had acid reflux. Overwhelmed with anxiety, I scanned the floor of the office, looking for the words. I gave in: "Because I'm bulimic." I entered a treatment program almost three years ago, and my life today is far better than anything I could ever have imagined. There, I got the tools that give me sanity around food and curb the urge to manipulate my body. I don't diet, restrict, binge, or purge, no matter what. And because weighing myself was a sabotaging measurement of how "good or bad" I was, I haven't stepped on a scale in years. I also have the amazing support of people in my treatment program who share my story. Many of them don't share my skin tone or heritage — and it doesn't matter. They helped me get over the image I had of how my body should look, so I could move toward embracing the uniquely beautiful shape I have. We bond over the purest form of self-expansion: trying to figure out how to love ourselves better. Do I still have days when I have negative thoughts about my body? Yes, I'm human. Some days I hate everything, and my first thought is to compare myself against those "perfect" bodies I used to hold on a pedestal. The difference is that I know "perfect" doesn't exist. I accept that my full breasts need three bra hooks to hold them up. And if enjoying a cheeseburger means missing out on a slightly flatter stomach, I'm okay with that. Today, I accept me.