By On January 25th, 2018

LGBTQ people face unique eating disorder risks

Source: Flickr/De Freezer

While awareness of eating disorders has grown over the past decade, many groups vulnerable to eating disorders still get overlooked because they don’t fit the stereotype. Young, heterosexual, white women now have wider access to treatment, and face less stigma when openly talking about their eating disorders. Meanwhile, men, people of color, and especially LGBTQ+ individuals continue to live with eating disorders in silence.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), disordered eating has become an epidemic among LGBTQ communities but this demographic still faces unique barriers preventing treatment or recovery.

The NEDA’s latest estimates suggest almost half (42%) of all men with an eating disorder are gay. Gay and bisexual men are also approximately seven times more likely to binge, and 12 times more likely to purge than heterosexual men.

However, this isn’t just an issue for male members of the LGBTQ community.

A Drexel University study published in 2015 found that “young women who are attracted to both sexes or who are unsure about who they are attracted to are more likely to develop an eating disorder than those attracted to only one sex.”

A Washington University study also indicated that transgender individuals have the highest rates of eating disorders compared to any demographic, based on an analysis of 289,024 students from 223 American universities.

Why are LGBTQ people more at risk for eating disorders?

There could potentially be numerous factors contributing to these high rates of eating disorders in LGBTQ people. Members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to live with anxiety or depression, which could contribute to negative body image or disordered eating behavior. Nonetheless, all of these issues appear to stem from the same root.

As the NEDA explains, LGBTQ people face a “broader cultural context of oppression” and a “myriad of unique stressors” that make them incredibly vulnerable to eating disorders.

Child and adolescent primary therapist at Washington’s Eating Recovery Center, Alissa Petee, explained the situation more bluntly when talking to Mic.

“There are a number of factors that make the LGBTQ population particularly susceptible to developing eating disorders,” Petee said.

“It can be traumatic to grow up in a homophobic, heterosexist world. Many may grow up feeling confusion and shame about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and children and adolescents are especially prone to attempting to change their internal experiences by changing their bodies and controlling aspects of life that are accessible to them, including food intake.”

According to Petee, LGBTQ individuals are also more likely to struggle with an eating disorder later in life, compared to the average individual. Rather than developing an eating disorder at the median age of 12-13 years old, a 2010 study discovered the average age for LGB people to develop an eating disorder was 19.2 years old.

“Adults who have come to terms with their sexuality and gender often carry internalized homophobia that can continue to be toxic and painful for them — but it is difficult to recognize that source of pain when one seems to have already gone through the process of coming out,” Petee said. “Underlying trauma and grief related to being different, fear of violence and ostracism, etc., can be fertile ground in someone already genetically predisposed to developing an eating disorder.”

Treatment needs to address LGBTQ issues

Because this trauma from stigma or fear of ostracism are so deeply intertwined with sexuality and gender, many eating disorder specialists say treatment of LGBTQ people must often address all of these issues.

Myra Hendley, primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center, Carolinas, told Bustle that around 30% of her LGBTQ patients brought up struggles with their sexuality during eating disorder-related treatment sessions.

“It is safe to say that perhaps eating disorders and sexuality are not talked about enough in general, whether in correlation with one another or separate,” she says.

Petee agrees that coming to terms with one’s sexuality is a large part of eating disorder recovery for LGBTQ people.

“A significant part of recovery from an eating disorder is better understanding one’s identity and finding ways to accept all parts of one’s self,” Petee said. She continued:

“If someone is struggling with their gender or sexuality, eating disorder treatment may be a catalyst for better understanding and coming to terms with that part of themselves. For those who feel uncomfortable in their skin because of gender dysphoria, treatment from an eating disorder will need to pay close attention to the gender aspect of accepting their body. Non cis-gendered people may feel particularly distressed if their body changes in the recovery process and their appearance becomes even more disconnected from their internal experience of themselves.”

Hendley also notes that addressing these issues at the same time can make treatment more intimidating for LGBTQ people. “For someone with an eating disorder, the shame cycle alone is enough to take on in treatment. When coupled with shame from a family system or society in regards to one’s sexuality, it can be paralyzing for someone.”

While LGBTQ individuals face a wide range of unique issues and stigma that put them at risk for eating disorder, the NEDA says there is evidence that becoming more deeply connected to the queer community may help lower the risk for eating disorders. It may also make treatment more likely to be effective, as connecting with the community can help individuals better accept their sexual identity.

Still, the data shows that more work is needed to make their unique trials better known to the public and create new strategies to encourage treatment for those most vulnerable.

If you or someone you love are living with an eating disorder, give Brookhaven a call at (888) 298-4673. We can answer any questions you have and help you find the best treatment plan for you. 

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