How to Decolonize the Way You Think About Your Body

When you hear the phrase “eating disorder,” what do you picture? Perhaps a young white woman, about 5’10”, blonde, with a face you would expect to see in a Hollister advertisement, size 00 (yes, Hollister carries size double zero). Contrary to cultural assumptions, eating disorders do not just plague white cis hetero women. They affect everyone, regardless of race, size, gender, class, or sexuality. However, they don’t affect everyone the same way.

Eating disorder research has historically left out women of color, and treatment plans are often expensive and lacking in cultural sensitivity. According to the American Psychological Association, less than 13 percent of adolescents receive treatment for their eating disorders, leaving thousands of others to suffer alone, in silence. But not if Gloria Lucas can help it.

Lucas is the founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride, a xicana/brown/indigenous body positive organization based in Compton, California, that takes an intersectional approach to eating disorder education. NPP provides community-based support for people of color who struggle with eating disorders and body image issues, emphasizing the need for decolonization within the body positive movement.

Lucas, 26, identifies as a xicana womxn of Mexican indigenous descent. She has a background in sexual health education, HIV/AIDS services, and trauma and substance abuse services for women and transgender folks. Lucas founded NPP in 2014 after personally struggling with an eating disorder and experiencing firsthand the dire lack of resources — and representation — for women of color.

With over 50,000 followers on Instagram, Lucas uses her platform to create a safe space for women of color to find community. She does not allow numbers (in reference to weight, calorie counting, etc.) anywhere on her page, and she vigilantly moderates comments with a zero tolerance policy for body policing, food shaming, and health trolling.

I had the opportunity to speak with Lucas about NPP’s mission to decolonize body image and raise eating disorder awareness for communities that are too often left out of the conversation.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Ayu Sutriasa: What led to the creation of Nalgona Positivity Pride?

Gloria Lucas: I started NPP because I had an eating disorder and I know what it’s like to struggle with something that’s considered to only affect privileged white women. The research and information on eating disorders is not culturally sensitive — there were no resources for me. NPP started in response to wanting to create a platform that makes our experiences known. I realized we have to create our own healing opportunities in our communities instead of waiting for the medical-industrial complex to save us.

How do eating disorders affect people of color and indigenous people differently from how they affect white people?

Our relationship with food was manipulated during colonialism. We were not allowed to have a relationship with our land or with our food. When Europeans came, they believed that European food made up the colonial body, which meant the ability to continue colonizing. When they came here they shamed indigenous foods, completely changing the diets of native people.

Then you add years of poverty and limited access to food, which inevitably leads to disordered eating. Recent studies tell us that if someone in your family engages in eating disorder behavior, your chances of developing an eating disorder are higher. Now imagine 500 years of this ongoing trauma.

One of the most prevalent eating disorders in [marginalized] communities is binge eating disorder. But BED wasn’t added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until recently. Our communities have been struggling with this for years, but it wasn’t considered a real eating disorder until May of 2013? This shows that our eating disorders have gone unreported, undiagnosed, and untreated.

On top of that, the white supremacist narrative that arrived with colonialism tells us that we’re ugly, we’re inferior, we’re not smart, we’re disposable … and if self-love is not there, then we don’t take care of ourselves. This fosters self-hate, which can be part of the development of an eating disorder.

How has the legacy of colonialism affected the way that body image is experienced by women of color and indigenous women?

When the first waves of colonialism occurred on this continent, our people were killed off by disease, they were mutilated, they were raped, and they were enslaved. Our relationship to land was disrupted, and land is part of our self-esteem, it’s part of our well-being. Our ancestors had to enact extreme behaviors in order to survive, and, unfortunately, survival meant assimilating to white standards.

All of these traumas were passed down to following generations. There are more and more studies coming out on epigenetics, which proves the idea that if one generation experiences trauma, it can be passed down. So with the introduction of colonialism, white supremacy became widespread. And white supremacy informs us that our bodies and our lives are lesser.

You mentioned communities of color shouldn’t wait for the medical-industrial complex to save them. Can you speak more about that?

Historically, the medical-industrial complex has used black and brown bodies as means of experimenting. So there’s already injury and trauma there, not to mention ongoing racism within these institutions that make it very hard for people of color to receive services. When I had an eating disorder, there was no help for me besides Overeaters Anonymous, which is very white, and tends to be comprised of older people. A lot of these evidence-based treatments for eating disorders have not been tested on people from our communities — they have mainly been processed and evaluated in white populations. Part of healing is connection, and I didn’t have that in those spaces.

For hundreds of thousands of years, we were medicinal people. White people and medical institutions cannot appropriate our traditional medicine, so it’s up to us to create and reclaim that ancestral medicine. We have to create our own opportunities for healing, and not expect these institutions, that created injury for so many years, to save us.

How does NPP facilitate this kind of healing in its community?

A lot of my work is educating others. I travel and host webinars with the goal of teaching the connection between historical trauma and eating disorders. Knowledge is power, and it was my medicine to heal from my eating disorder. I had to recognize where it came from. If you don’t know where something comes from, how do you know what you need to heal yourself? So we have to recognize our own stories, because in this country the white narrative is dominant, but that doesn’t apply to us.

NPP also has different support groups. First is Sage and Spoon, which is an online peer support group that meets twice a month. It is specifically for indigenous peoples and people of color who struggle with troubled eating. It’s completely free.

We also have Te Con Miel, which is our monthly women of color circle that focuses on body image. Each month we discuss different topics regarding body image. That’s here in LA, but starting in 2018 it will be hosted in Compton, which is where I live. Compton is a city with high rates of violence, of crime and corruption. There aren’t a lot of resources here. Look at the eating disorder world — where do they have their treatment centers? They have them in very luxurious places. They don’t have them here in the hood. There’s no money for that. So this is my chance to create a healing opportunity in a place where there really isn’t much.

We have to remember that regardless of the type of society that we live in, disease always exists. Disabilities have always existed. So we need to stop moralizing health and actually take action. We need to start addressing health disparities, food deserts, and low self-esteem. Let’s start talking about white supremacy and fatphobia. Let’s combat the systemic issues that are hindering our ability to exceed in our self-esteem and our worth. That’s how we help people heal: by actively working to remove the stigma attached to the bodies of marginalized people.