Eating disorders – The silent killer among women

March 8 is International Women’s Day and in honor of women’s health, EXTRA looked at some of the options available for women, especially Latinas in Chicago, with eating disorders and how the eating disorders affect minorities.

While a handful of eating disorder treatment centers in Chicago failed to respond, a quick search on the Internet revealed that there are very few facilities for Spanish-speaking Latinas seeking treatment available in Chicago.

Dr. Fatima Z. Ali has been a licensed psychiatrist at Du Page Mental Health Services in Wheaton, Ill., for the last 25 years. While the center doesn’t offer Spanish-speaking facilities, their partner hospital in Naperville does. The hospital has interpreters that sit in on family sessions. Ali said eating disorders are a problem in the city, but that the biggest problem is the inaccessibility of public health care.

“Our hospital is one of the ones that don’t take patients above 20 years of age [who don’t have health coverage]. We are seeing adolescents come in but a lot of the times these Hispanic families are socioeconomically underprivileged and can’t afford treatment. Compared to the numbers [of Latinas] that we do see, there are probably many more that we don’t see because they don’t have access to health care,” said Ali.

Lisaura Lozada is the director of Program Development at Timberline Knolls Treatment Center in Lemont, Ill. While this center also does not offer Spanish language programs, she lends her Spanish-speaking abilities whenever they’re needed.

Most agree that the studies done on Latinos and eating disorders are most likely distorted. Health care, Ali pointed out, is one of the reasons. Another reason is cultural differences. Ali said she has seen a lot of parents of second generation immigrant children who are very unaware of eating disorders. Ali is from Pakistan and she relates to some of the cultural differences that she said are often obstacles in a world where treatment for eating disorders is generally geared toward white women.

“In Pakistan it’s always about the family–family pride, family’s connections. So I understand some of the negative effects of that, some of the pressure that comes with it. The typical criteria of the DSM [a scientific dictionary for mental disorders] means that a lot of Hispanics may not fit into those criteria based on cultural biases. For example, they’re not as scared of gaining weight as people in white culture, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have disordered eating,” said Ali.

While cultural differences may skew scientific data and affect the way symptoms of the disorder are manifested, Lozada said that culture does not discriminate when it comes to susceptibility of getting an eating disorder. “The way you feel about your body and treat it is in a way a reflection of your idenity. You’re seeking an identity. Culturally, we may see our identity in different ways, however a lack of self-worth [among other factors can put an individual at risk of developing an eating disorder]. For example, in my background, from Puerto Rico, even though we have a culture that is very different, we have been influenced by U.S. views of body image, and that has affected us even though our bodies are shaped differently. We have internal and external expectations influencing us,” said Lozada.

Ali has similar thinking and gives an example of the Fuji islands. She said that they experienced a significant increase in eating disorders in their population after being exposed to years of TV that they never had seen before.

Culture also plays a role in the amount of pressure an immigrant feels. That could contribute to a higher risk of developing an eating disorder. Ali said that she thinks that the more integrated an immigrant is in the U.S, the less risk they have of developing an eating disorder because they are less marginalized and so feel less vulnerable.

“Financial stability is a big factor. A lot of minorities who are migrating face the pressure of integrating and hardship of being away from their families. These are added pressures compared to what everybody else is facing. Economic factors play a huge role in how they feel about themselves,” said Ali.

Lozada said that how a person feels about himself or herself is at the very core of eating disorders.

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This post is also available in: Spanish

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