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Lost in Translation: Cultures Collide in the Journey of Eating Disorder Recovery

At 16 years old, I stepped out of my comfort zone when I chose to embark on an exchange program through school that involved welcoming a French student into my home for 3 months, and then later that year I went to live with her for 3 months.


When Marie first arrived in Toronto, she was a timid teenager with minimal English skills, and I was determined to become friends. I noticed that Marie would not eat at mealtimes, which I initially attributed to jetlag or nerves from living in a foreign country. Over the following weeks, I formed a close bond with Marie, and she felt comfortable confiding in me about her diagnosis of anorexia. This was the first time I lived with someone who had an eating disorder (ED), and due to the unique circumstances – language barriers, cultural differences, and unspoken boundaries – it left an impression on me long after Marie went home.


As I got to know Marie more, especially when I later went to France to live with her family, I noticed how her ED was often left unspoken about. Years earlier, she had been hospitalized and received familial support, but since then, she had relapsed and found a way to keep this hidden from her parents. Her household felt traditionally French in that she was given a lot of independence at a young age, was rarely required to share meals together, and feelings were not often openly discussed but rather brushed under the rug. This was a stark contrast to my Colombian household, which is rambunctious and loud. My parents tried to make the experience as welcoming as possible, which included sharing family dinners every evening. Unfortunately, Colombia has a culture that places a lot of value on looks, and so my mother, considering it acceptable, would often comment on Marie’s physique, saying she had the body of a model because she was so thin.


Marie felt that both her traditional French parents and my Colombian parents' responses were not conducive to healing her ED, not out of malice, but due to their unique cultural customs. This was distressing to me because at 16, I felt a great deal of responsibility to help her, but I was unaware at the time of resources that I could turn to. My mother was starting to notice how serious this was, and the idea of having to go back home because of her ED greatly incentivized her to put tremendous effort into her recovery while in Canada.


I partnered with her to determine how I could best support her and create a safe environment for her in my home by taking small actions like asking what foods she wanted to have in the house or identifying any triggers we could avoid. After researching more about EDs and with her permission, I took the initiative to teach my parents about the psychological disturbances that occur with EDs and ways to adjust their vocabulary to be supportive and person-centered.


Marie’s stay opened my eyes to how culture can impact a person’s entire experience with the disease. Even though we started out as two strangers who didn’t speak the same language, through empathy and trust, we were able to build a strong bond. I am so proud of Marie because all the progress she made in her recovery took time and effort, and I am grateful she let me in so I could support her every step of the way.



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