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Bulimia: Not just for rich, white girls

Posted Mar 20 2009 3:36pm

Cross-posted on

Eating disorders are often thought to be a “rich white girl’s disease,” but a new study shows that black girls and girls from low-income families are more likely to develop bulimia than their wealthier white counterparts. The study is based on information from a government database of 2,300 girls from schools in California, Ohio and Washington D.C. The girls were surveyed annually about their eating habits and body image between the ages of 9 and 20. The study included an equal number of blacks and whites.

About 2.6 percent of black girls were found to be bulimic, compared to 1.7 percent of whites. Bulimia affected 3.3 percent of girls whose parents had a high school education, compared to 1.5 percent of girls in households where at least one parent had a college degree. In other words, black girls are 50 percent more likely than whites to develop bulimia, while girls in low income brackets are 153 percent more like to develop bulimia than girls in the highest income bracket. Lead researcher Michelle Goeree explains:

{…}the misconception that eating disorders are a “white woman’s” problem comes from previous studies that focused on hospital admission data, which wouldn’t include girls who don’t seek professional help for their illness. In most states, treatment for eating disorders isn’t covered by insurance.

“Who goes to the hospital? Those who have insurance. Who tends to have insurance? Wealthier, better-educated people,” said Goeree, an economist at the University of Southern California.

Goeree said minority parents also may be less likely to recognize bulimic behavior, such as purging in their children.

If there’s any good news to be had from this, it’s this, as reported in the Chicago Sun Times:

The study has important policy implications: Based on their findings about the persistence of bulimic behavior and who is afflicted, the researchers argue that bulimia, which is currently classified as a disorder, would perhaps be more accurately described — and treated — as an addiction. As with drug and alcohol addictions, this would mean more federal, state and local treatment programs and fewer out-of-pocket insurance costs.

The findings also affect educational spending: “What we thought was that bulimia affects high income, high education white women. And, if that’s the case, then you should try to tailor educational programs — because education is expensive — to the group that it will help the most,” Goeree explains. “Now we’re finding that it’s really important to reach a completely different group than we thought.”

For more information on eating disorders among women of color, see here.

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