Stephanie Covington Armstrong's mellifluous voice does not reveal the pain that once took up residence there. She speaks with the confidence of a woman who is comfortable in her own skin and doesn't care what other people think.
That wasn't always the case. The cover of her new book, 'Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat,' tells it all. Jagged black scribbles cross out a childhood photo, which is set against the backdrop of a stark yellow cover. But the most striking image, also on the cover, is of two fingers -- the index and middle -- both used to induce vomiting.
They symbolize bulimia, which is characterized by binge eating and purging, either by throwing up, laxative abuse or overexercising. A compulsion, it is usually done to numb feelings of anxiety or pain, experts say.
"My childhood picture is crossed out because it's about my self-loathing phase,'' says Covington Armstrong in a reflective voice. "The two fingers, well, they are about bulimia. It resonates for me.''
Covington Armstrong, a playwright and screenwriter in her forties who is a recovered bulimic, is an anomaly in many ways and shatters the myth that eating disorders are the sole province of whites. She also developed the disease late. Most sufferers fall ill in their teens, but Armstrong developed it in her twenties as she struggled to bury a painful childhood marked by neglect, stays in foster care, abject poverty and sexual abuse.
She is not alone. More and more, African American women are being diagnosed with eating disorders. Fifty percent are more likely to exhibit bulimic behavior than their white counterparts, which changes the complexion of bulimia, according to 'Caught in the Bulimic Trap: Do Eating Disorders Reflect Addictive Behavior,' a study conducted by Michelle Sovinsky Goeree and John C. Ham, of the University of Southern California, and Daniela Iorio, of CODE-the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona
The 10-year-study followed 2,300 girls from California, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., who were questioned about body image and eating habits. "One explanation is straightforward: Girls with an eating disorder who are African American or come from low-income families are much less likely to be diagnosed,'' Goeree says. "Who goes to the hospital? Those who have insurance. Who tends to have insurance? Wealthier, better-educated people.''
Armstrong's eating disorder developed as she was in the throes of achieving her career goals, but her personal life was wanting.
"I became bulimic in Los Angeles,'' she says. "The normal age starts at 13. The men thing didn't work, so I was going to shut down and not need anyone. That's when bulimia came in. It's like this rush of calmness that occurs. I was able to function at this high level of pain. I didn't want to look imperfect, yet it wasn't about trying to be small. It was about hiding in plain sight. I could give a person great advice and be a mess inside.''
The trigger for her bulimia may have been relationship troubles, but it was it was just the tip of the iceberg, she says. Her childhood was no cakewalk.
She talks about the kitchen table as a war front when she was growing up. Armstrong says she hated her mother's cooking and simply moved the food around on the plate. The action triggered feelings of guilt, because her family was by no means wealthy. Covington Armstrong and her three siblings grew up in the rough-and-tumble Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. As a result, she longed for control in a world of chaos.
"My mother couldn't cook,'' Armstrong recalls. "She didn't think much of food. She does not have an eating disorder, but she certainly has disordered eating.''
She describes her mother as a hippie who became a lesbian late in life. She had three children in her twenties and didn't know how to care for them, Armstrong says. At one point, for more than a year, she and her siblings spent time in foster care when her mother could no longer afford to take care of them. The family was later reunited.
"Even though she did her best,'' Armstrong says of her mom, with who she is in touch with today. "I deserved better. I set about healing in my twenties. I was at the bottom of running from all of this pain of low self-esteem. I chose food, and my sister was junkie.''
There was another secret in the family. Armstrong's uncle, who worked on Wall Street as a stockbroker and was the only success story on shaky family, attempted to rape her as a child. She tells the story in raw detail: "I felt something sticky and slippery as he slathered Vaseline onto the entrance of my vagina, cold, wet, thick,'' she writes. "His heavy man hands massaged the Vaseline into my private parts for what felt like forever...''
In the end, he could not penetrate her young body, she says. "He was a common predator," she says of her uncle. "He was attractive but was unable to sustain a marriage."
"He was not someone you would think of as a predator,'' she says. "I would have trusted my kid with him. He would have slipped under the radar. Absolutely. He was raised in foster homes and who knows what happened to him. I really want to say that. I'm not saying he was innocent because he was a grown-up. I was innocent.''
Indeed, just as with most addictions, people develop bulimia as a way to mask painful experiences. To fight her demons, Covington Armstrong moved from coast to coast to escape her self-loathing, but she found she could not run from her pain and finally decided to seek help. She went to counseling, read literature and attended group sessions geared toward middle-class white women. She wrote 'Not All Black Girls' in attempt to address that problem. And it does. It's straight, no chaser.
By telling her harrowing story and revealing the connection between childhood sexual abuse, parental neglect and poor eating habits, she threads the connection between the disease and the road to recovery. Covington Armstrong urges families to stay vigilant with sons and daughters, saying bulimia is not just throwing up and exercising. "It's abuse of diet teas, too,'' she says.
These days, Covington Armstrong is happily married and healed. "I actually will never throw up again,'' she says. "While I am fully recovered from bulimia, food is always a yardstick I can use to gauge where I am. If I'm hungry and I just ate, I can usually pinpoint what emotion I am trying to avoid. Usually something has triggered this hunger, and I can acknowledge it and move on without caving to the need to stuff down the feelings with food.''