Experts discuss why LGBTQ people are at such high risk for eating disorders
It is no secret that LGBTQ individuals are significantly more likely to develop eating disorders compared to heterosexual and cisgender people. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, gay men are 7-times as likely to live with an eating disorder and 12-times more likely to report purging behavior. Similarly, bisexual or lesbian women and transgender individuals disproportionately account for a large percentage of people living with eating disorders.
The question is why?
As Dr. Norman H. Kim, national director for program development at Reasons Eating Disorder Center recently told Stylecaster, he believes that what he calls “minority stress” is largely behind the incredibly high rates of eating disorder within the LGBTQ community.
Kim says that many of the dangerous disordered eating behaviors prevalent in the LGBTQ community are the result of chronic social stress related to “othering” related to their sexual minority status. These can be compounded by stressors such as bullying at young ages, harassment or physical violence, and stigmatization.
This is particularly true for transgender individuals, psychologist Ashley Solomon added.
“Studies have shown that compared to their cisgender counterparts, trans youth in particular are more likely to engage in unhealthy fasting, using diet pills and steroids and taking laxatives. In fact, the risk is about four times greater in this population of individuals,” explained the Eating Recovery Center’s regional managing director of telebehavioral health.
The stresses of transitioning mixed with body dysmorphia can lead many trans women to develop eating disorders or disordered eating habits as part of an effort to make themselves appear thinner and more feminine.
While the experiences of trans people place them at unique risk for eating disorder, Solomon emphasizes that the stigma and prejudice faced by all LGBTQ individuals make it especially important for medical professionals to screen for eating disorders when working with LGBTQ people.
“Eating disorder behaviors generally develop as a mechanism for coping with seemingly unmanageable feelings and stress,” Solomon said. “In particular, a personal and cultural history of social stigma and discrimination is a major risk factor for developing mental health challenges, including eating problems. For someone who has the genetic makeup to be at risk for an eating disorder, bias, bullying, family rejection, and an overall hostile world can tip the scales, so to speak, and lead to dangerous eating disorder symptoms.”
Unfortunately, these issues are compounded by the fact that medical professionals are frequently ill-prepared to treat LGBTQ individuals, especially those who are transgender.
“The greatest danger is that in the eating disorder treatment community, just like most of the medical and psychological communities, there is very little understanding of how to work with [trans] people,” Kim explained. “Finding eating disorder specialists who also have experience working with the trans population is essential but can be challenging, although we are seeing increasing efforts to correct this in our field.”