News, On Campus

Castañeda and O’Neill Examine the Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Latinx Communities

Yvonne Castañeda, a part-time faculty member in the Boston College School of Social Work (SSW), said she grew up influenced by media that equated being pretty with being skinny. 

“Back then I wasn’t reading books about my culture,” Castañeda said. “I was reading about the white experience and also watching movies about the white experience and it was ‘be a skinny pretty cheerleader with the boyfriend with a convertible car and you’re in and that’s it,’ and that’s what I thought.”

Castañeda and Kate Balch O’Neill, BC Alumni Association Board Member and BC ’08, shared their personal struggles with disordered eating and discussed the prevalence of eating disorders in Latinx communities at an event hosted by SSW on Thursday night.

“I know in the Latinx community specifically, the two eating disorders that are most prevalent are actually bulimia and binge eating disorder,” Castañeda said. “And I think binge eating disorders for people in our culture may not necessarily be considered something that is a disorder.”

Castañeda said she felt guilty purging the food her mother made for her growing up, as her mother came from a less fortunate family and often did not know where her next meal would come from.

“I remember hearing my mom telling me stories about it,” Castañeda said. “And so for me to then look at her knowing everything that she suffered and to tell her that I was actually consuming the food that she worked so hard to provide and then purging it felt so odd.”

The feeling of being ungrateful often stems from what Castañeda calls “first generation trauma” and the pressure to succeed that comes with it, she said. 

“That first generation responsibility [leaves] no space for ‘I’m actually feeling a lot of anxiety,’ or ‘Maybe I’m in a depression and I don’t want to get out of bed’ and that’s just the way that lands on us,” Castañeda said. “It’s very difficult to deal with that and then know that you can’t really talk to your family about it at all.”

According to Castañeda, she first noticed a trend of Latinx mothers keeping feelings bottled in while she worked at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.

“These moms would come for individual support and talk about how they were worried about their daughter or their son,” Castañeda said. “And of course, we would talk about ‘What is your process? How are you with your emotions? What do you need,’ and it was always very difficult for them to talk about what they needed.”

O’Neill explained how eating disorders are not just about food but also an internal struggle for control and self-worth, citing Castañeda’s book, Pork Belly Tacos with a Side of Anxiety

“Pretending to be a happy bubbly on top of the world cheerleader made me feel like an imposter,” O’Neill read from the book. “And my inability to accept my dissatisfaction provoked an endless stream of negative thoughts directed at no one but myself. What’s wrong with you? Isn’t this what you wanted? Why can’t you be happy?”

Castañeda said to cope with feeling inadequate and overweight, she often purged, which would leave her feeling thinner and more content with her body image. She said although purging made her feel in control of her anxiety about living up to her parent’s expectations, it was an unhealthy coping mechanism.  

“The thing is, although initially it was something that I did to lose weight and get really thinner, or so I thought, really what it turned into was ‘this is a really bad coping mechanism,’” Castañeda said. “‘Is that what my life feels like? It’s spiraling out of control. And I don’t feel like I’m in any kind of control because I’m so anxious about the future.’”

If society continues “shaming fat and celebrating skinny,” the prevalence of eating disorders will continue to grow, O’Neill said. 

“I think the most profound way of showing why eating disorders are so prevalent is because we’re celebrating skinny,” O’Neill said. “… I’m wondering why we still shame fat and we still celebrate skinny and why we haven’t learned that this is unfair and unrealistic.” 

February 19, 2023

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