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How Eating Disorders Can Affect Anyone


Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric diagnosis. This week, one organization is trying to spread the word that eating disorders affect all of us. From NPR's Code Switch podcast, Shereen Marisol Meraji has more.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Karla Mosley wants you to know that people with eating disorders look like her, too.

KARLA MOSLEY: I'm a woman of color, and I certainly didn't know that people like me had eating disorders. It seemed like it was a white, rich female adolescent disorder.

MERAJI: Only one of those identifiers fits Mosley, who's black - and binged and purged for years. She also struggled with obsessive thoughts about food.

MOSLEY: I've experienced so many holidays and social events where I wasn't present with people because I was focusing on what was on the table, what was going in my mouth. Then once I ate it, is it going to make me fat the next day?

MERAJI: Food haunted her at times; food comforted her at others. And when she threw food up, she says it was actually a way to purge pent-up sadness and anxiety. She says there was a period in her life where she was throwing up every single night. Mosley's an actor. She's been a regular on the daytime soap "The Bold And The Beautiful" since 2013. But a decade before that, she was working on a kid's show in Australia.

MOSLEY: At night, I was doing this really violent thing by myself, up all night. And then during the day, I was, like, smiling and entertaining children (laughter). And it was this very strange Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde moment, and I was kind of, like, barely keeping it together. And then my aunt passed away.

MERAJI: Her aunt was like a second mom. And when she got that news, the very first thing she did was run to the bathroom to throw up. Her colleagues were aware this was going on and begged her to get help, which she did. And speaking honestly about her eating disorder and her recovery is Mosley's way of giving back. She says she was lucky to have colleagues who supported her, and she knows not everyone has that luxury. So she's using her platform as a black actor with 60,000 Instagram followers.

MOSLEY: You know, my picture shows up in their feed every day, and that's a wide range of people. I'm on the No. 1 soap opera in the world. It's possible that, by my telling my story, people can be helped.

MERAJI: Karla Mosley is an ambassador for the largest nonprofit in the U.S. helping people affected by eating disorders, the National Eating Disorder Association, or NEDA. This week marks its annual Eating Disorder Awareness campaign, and this year's theme is inclusivity. The tagline - "Come as You Are."

CLAIRE MYSKO: And one of our big goals with ambassadors is to really carry forward this message of "Come as You Are."

MERAJI: That's the head of NEDA, Claire Mysko. Ambassadors like Karla are sharing their stories this week, and Mysko wants other people to do the same using the hashtag #ComeAsYouAre. She says 30 million Americans have struggled with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. And that number is probably higher because the stereotype of who has an eating disorder affects how we talk about eating disorders, who seeks treatment, who gets treatment and how they're treated. Mysko hopes people of all genders and racial and ethnic backgrounds will participate.

MYSKO: It's really about, again, celebrating community and busting these myths that prevent and have prevented so many people from coming forward.

MERAJI: Another myth - people with eating disorders are all thin. Chevese Turner, who founded the Binge Eating Disorder Association in 2008, says that's just not true. She's struggled with both binge eating disorder and atypical anorexia. That's when you restrict your food intake in your calories but you don't look superthin.

CHEVESE TURNER: I have always lived in a higher-weight body. And so part of what the greater eating disorders community, back in 2008, was not doing was really representing people in higher-weight bodies with eating disorders.

MERAJI: Binge eating disorder wasn't recognized on the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual back then. That's something Turner worked on changing. And that officially happened in 2013. Now that there's more research on binge eating, she says demographic data is emerging.

TURNER: The Latino community actually has the highest rates of binge eating disorder, and they are followed by the black community.

MERAJI: A researcher told me that Latinas she worked with who crossed the border from Central America and Mexico had gone without food for so long, they started binge eating once they finally had it. So food insecurity can be a trigger. Trauma can also be a trigger as well as anxiety and depression. But most of the studies on what causes eating disorders have been done by white researchers on white women with diagnostic tools designed by white researchers for white women. Turner, whose white, wanted to address this lack of representation in her own way, so she invited an equity expert, who's black, to speak at the Binge Eating Disorder Association's annual conference a few years ago. She says that expert, Desiree Adaway, got up on stage...

TURNER: And she said, I just want to let y'all know that this is a room full of white supremacy. And until that point I had not really realized just how white our organizations were (laughter) and just how much we were not listening.

MERAJI: Chevese Turner has a new job now. She's at the National Eating Disorder Association. She joined forces with Claire Mysko at NEDA to, quote, "unify the eating disorder community," And Mysko acknowledges they have some work ahead when it comes to being more inclusive.

MYSKO: As a white woman, I'm sort of putting forward that typical picture of who struggles.

MERAJI: NEDA doesn't have a Latinx ambassador yet. But they reached out to someone to help get the word out about "Come as You Are." Her name's Gloria Lucas. And she started her own thing because, like Chevese Turner, she felt like the eating disorder community wasn't serving her needs as a Latina with an eating disorder who identifies as chubby, so she created Nalgona Positivity Pride.

GLORIA LUCAS: Nalgona means a woman with the big butt (laughter). And it's also slang. Right? I think that people relate to that - right? - that speak Spanish are like, oh, this is familiar.

MERAJI: Lucas' Instagram - also called Nalgona Positivity Pride - has 80,000 followers. And she gives talks at schools and in bilingual bookstores, basically wherever she can gather an audience of people of color to share her own recovery story and how she came to the realization that trying to prove her worth in a society that doesn't value her was making her sick. She says she read that...

LUCAS: Eating disorders are sane reactions to insane circumstances, you know? But I think that "Come as You Are" is, like, everybody from all different types of backgrounds, come as you are, and talk about our struggles with food - right? - because eating disorders thrive in isolation.

MERAJI: The National Eating Disorder Association's "Come as You Are" campaign ends March 3. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "COME AS YOU ARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.