Words: Mmamello Matake
My name is Mmamello Matake, and I would like to invite you to walk with me on a delicate path of healing. In this heartfelt column, we will look at a topic that is often overlooked: the intertwined experiences of food trauma and eating disorders among black women. It deeply saddens me that in my search for survivors within my creative community, I found no one who felt comfortable acknowledging this issue. So, let us gently grasp each other’s hands as we embark on this healing journey together.
I gradually discovered the intricate bond I had formed with food and the poignant memories tied to certain dishes. One dish, in particular, holds profound significance for me: oats. While oats are celebrated for their nourishing qualities and convenience, they have become a barrier that I simply cannot cross. Even when faced with an empty pantry, I would rather endure hunger than lift a spoonful of oats. Childhood memories have transformed these grains into a source of lasting trauma that resides within me. Most of my memories and childhood experiences revolve around my relationship with my mother, the men she married or was in a relationship with, and my community. It took a community to raise me, and that community is also a source of my pain.
Within our home, each morning dawned with my late stepfather preparing oats for our family. In many African households, a comforting bowl of soft porridge graced our mornings before the official breakfast. Yet, an unexplainable fear gripped me whenever I saw him behind that pot of oats. His presence alone left me speechless, unable to find my voice. I recall a specific morning when I vomited while eating oats, which unleashed a torrent of beatings as he forcefully fed me. Although his punishment extended beyond that single incident, this memory became entwined with the beatings I received for soiling my pristine white stockings during my preschool days. Growing older, I came to understand that my stepfather’s actions stemmed from his struggle with OCD, an aversion to anything he perceived as unclean. He assumed responsibility for our household chores, subjecting me to scalding hot baths twice a day. Perhaps that explains why, even now, I find solace in the comforting embrace of searing showers. Although I cannot fully grasp the complexities of the human mind, this connection remains within me.
Persisting with my daily consumption of oats came at a price. I would face disapproving glances or endure punishment for refusing to eat oats. My profound dread of my stepfather’s wrath pushed me to force myself to eat, suppressing any urge to vomit. Regurgitating my food only led to further beatings, which he became increasingly discreet about. My mother knew of these punishments and often argued with him, but he found ways to carry them out in secrecy whenever she was preoccupied or absent. After his passing, I made a conscious decision never to touch oats again.
Throughout the years, I have battled with insecurities about my body. This struggle continues, though I now approach it with a sense of indifference. However, my focus has shifted toward understanding how I cope with stress. During moments of intense anxiety, I find myself succumbing to episodes of binge eating. At times, I would even convince myself that I was experiencing ovulation, using it as justification for indulging in food, even when it was not related to my menstrual cycle. The belief that food holds the power to alleviate my worries temporarily leads me down a path of momentary solace, where I can momentarily forget my troubles. Yet, this temporary respite never lingers, as I am inevitably forced to halt my eating.
Acknowledging the impact of trauma on my relationship with food marks a vital step in my journey toward healing. I understand that relying on binge eating as a coping mechanism is not sustainable or healthy in the long run. It is crucial for me to explore alternative ways to manage stress and emotions that do not depend on food. I want to get better and seek help, but I constantly find myself in intense jobs that keep me so busy that I don’t think I even have normal eating patterns.
Do we even have professional help that solely focuses on eating disorders in Africa? Do we have support groups of people who are trying to speak out about food trauma and eating disorders?