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Statistics are more than just numbers The importance of representation on eating disorders

By Varsha Yajman

Last year I had the chance to write for Refinery29 about my experience as a South Asian woman with an eating disorder. I was asked to add some statistics about people of colour and their experience with eating disorders. However, I couldn’t find any.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. Yet, there were no statistics on how many people of colour experience eating disorders and minimal research regarding First Nations people, LGBTQIA+ and disabled people. In most cases, all that is available is a blanket statement saying a disproportionate amount of people are affected by eating disorders. This is, in my opinion, not enough.

Specific data on marginalised groups and their experiences with eating disorders is available and accessible in other Western countries like the US and UK. However, Australia seems to lack the nuance and understanding of the various intersections for those with eating disorders. This is reflected in our healthcare system, which severely lacks cultural competency.

A lack of data on marginalised groups such as First Nations, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ and disabled people suggests a lack of research and ignorance in ensuring we are represented. I see statistics not as mere numbers but as a step forward to breaking the stigma and creating more culturally competent medical support.

Breaking the stigma

The experience of seeking help and having open conversations about disordered eating isn’t easy. The “ideal” or standard for most eating disorders is thin, vain teenage white women depicted in the mainstream media.

Our collective understanding of marginalised identity does not hold space for complexity. While we aim to make progress, much of our knowledge is still unable to comprehend the intersections of ableism, race, sexuality, culture, and eating disorders.

My perception of eating disorders did not change until I met people who looked like me and shared their experiences. I thought a brown girl could not suffer from an eating disorder.

As much as people tell you that external validation is not essential, when you’re isolated and feel like you’re the only one experiencing something so terrifying, a statistic saying you’re not alone can be everything a person needs to seek help.

Just knowing another Indian woman, a woman of colour, was experiencing an eating disorder would have helped me seek help much quicker than I did.

More research must be carried out, and data must be made available. The current lack of representation in research on eating disorders only perpetuates the stigma and makes it more difficult for individuals like myself to seek the help they need.

Medical support

The lack of information on people of colour and mental illness as a whole is a significant and persistent issue. It is about the lack of care and consideration given to cultural competency in understanding the impacts of mental health issues on people of colour and their communities. Statistics validate individual experiences of mental illness, but they also inform the approaches of our health care providers and the systems in place. In their journal article titled Health statistics, Barbara Bartkowiak and Brian Finnegan state the use of statistics in assisting the allocation of public and private funds and help to determine how research efforts should be focused.

Understanding this disproportionate impact on specific groups allows healthcare professionals to recognise the complexities surrounding cultural stigmas in these groups, making the diagnosis process smoother and less burdensome for patients. It also allows them to understand the cultural implications, that the same treatment that works for most Australians may not work for every group.

While statistical analysis is not a remedy, no problem can be addressed without first being understood. This begins with research. No one should feel like they are outliers who are unworthy of study or that their needs cannot be catered to by our healthcare system, particularly when we call ourselves the “lucky country”.

While statistical enquiries into marginalised groups can have their limitations - whether these groups feel comfortable disclosing their condition and even recognise they are suffering from it, I see them as a step forward to achieving better and more culturally competent support that communities deserve.

If you or someone you know is in need of support with eating disorders contact the following:

Varsha is a 19-year-old law student, podcaster and advocate for climate justice and mental health awareness. She has been an organiser for School Strike for Climate and is currently a coordinator at SAPNA South Asian Climate Solidarity Network and a paralegal at Equity Generation Lawyers which conducts climate change litigation. Her work along with her podcast, Not to be Controversial, aims to create a community for young South Asians to feel represented and empowered

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