Content warning: This article contains mention of eating disorders.
Rachel Goode isn’t your typical researcher.
Her lab’s website is filled with bright colors and patterns instead of monotonous black-and-white designs. The lab itself is fluid; her studies are conducted anywhere from churches to primary care clinics.
And even the type of research she does differs from the norm.
In fact, her dynamic research led her to receive the 2023 Deborah K. Padgett Early Career Achievement Award — from the Society for Social Work and Research — this month.
“I know my work looks different, and I do my work differently, I think, that sometimes my mentors might have done their work,” Goode said. “And it was affirming to know I’m treading my own path; it may not look the way everyone else’s has looked in academia, and that’s okay.”
Her research is centered around eating disorders like binge and emotional eating, treatments for obesity and strategies for developing a healthy relationship with food.
Part of what makes her research unique is who she focuses on: a community that has typically been left out when it comes to eating disorder research — Black women.
“Because people think thin affluent white women, they’re not looking at Black women who may be in a larger body,” Goode said. “They’re assuming that ‘Oh, because they’re in a larger body, they couldn’t have an eating disorder.’”
These assumptions have dangerous repercussions, she said. If a provider does not think eating disorders impact the Black community, they might not screen a Black woman with eating disorder symptoms. If researchers only focus on young white women, science-based eating disorder reduction strategies are developed without women of color in mind – leaving many Black women without adequate resources.
And even if Black women themselves believe the stigmas, they might not know they have an eating disorder.
Goode said these scenarios put Black women at risk for chronic conditions.
“We have the highest rates of obesity in the country,” Goode said. “We also have some of the highest rates of heart disease, type II diabetes. Those are numbers that alarm me, knowing that we are at risk for some of the most preventable diseases in the country, and we don’t have treatments that currently work for us that well – and that’s not okay.”
As director of the Living F.R.E.E.(Research Focused on Reducing Excessive Eating) Lab at UNC, Goode is working to break those stereotypes and develop resources specifically for Black women. Some of which she is drawing on from her personal experiences.
“I know what it’s like to have an eating disorder; I know what it’s like to carry more weight than I would like and feel like I’m stuck,” Goode said. “And, I also know what it’s like to live in a place of wholeness, health and freedom in my relationship with food. Understanding those three states really compelled me to want to use what I’ve learned to create something that could make things better for others.”
Ramine Alexander, the lab’s research project manager, said Goode’s personal passion shows both in how she interacts with others and within their research.
“She’s thinking about it from a holistic approach,” Alexander said. “She is not afraid to try different approaches to science that we may not always see in the literature all the time. That’s what I like (about her). She’s, as a person, genuine. And, as a researcher, innovative.”
One of the ways Goode’s innovation shows through her research is in how she offers interventions for eating disorders. She chooses community-based areas that are easily accessible such as churches and academic buildings — and even online.
When Black women walk into those spaces, Goode said they see themselves everywhere – in the people teaching the program, in images displayed around the room and in fellow participants – letting them know they are not facing this alone.
“We purposefully thought of them,” Goode said. “We interviewed them to think about how to design the program – they came first. And, I feel like Black women deserve to have that experience where they come first. Not we’re getting someone’s sloppy seconds – you come first, you are important.”
This innovative work and focus on social justice are also a big part of the early career achievement award Goode received.
“Rachel had high marks on all of the criteria we were looking for,” Deborah Padgett, the award’s namesake, said. “And so, it was very gratifying and not a very difficult decision to make.”
Goode said she hopes her recognition puts these issues in the spotlight so that more research in her field can be done.
“I know that my research is building a program of research that is helping people find a healthy place in their eating behaviors,” she said. “For that reason, I am happy to know I’m on the right track. With science you never arrive, you’re just helping collectively put your contribution into the pot so that we can all move forward.”
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