In popular media, eating disorders are frequently shown in a handful of stereotypical ways, implying they only impact certain groups of people. Usually a young, often white, conventionally attractive straight woman is shown missing meals to try to attain mainstream standards of beauty, or purging food as part of her efforts toward a high intensity career such as ballet or modeling.
In fact, eating disorders can affect people of all demographics, ages, and body types - and, some research suggests that they may be more prevalent in parts of the LGBTQ community.
What is an eating disorder?
An eating disorder is an unhealthy relationship with food and eating that is taken to an extreme - controlling or attempting to control food, eating, weight, and appearance becomes the central way to deal with stress and difficult emotions.
The most commonly diagnosed eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder
You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them - disordered eating affects people of all sizes and weights.
People with anorexia try to control their weight by severely restricting their food intake, and sometimes also by using laxatives and excessive exercising. It can be hard to admit you might have symptoms of anorexia because it has come to feel like the steps you take to lose weight are the only things keeping everything in life from going wrong. You might find yourself explaining away your eating habits by creating a lot of rules and rituals around food, or avoiding socializing or having meals with family and friends so they don’t question why you’re not eating.
Anorexia is known as the most deadly mental health condition because of the extreme damage it can do to your body if left unchecked. Physical signs such as poor circulation, dizziness, low body temperature, and losing your period if you’re a person who menstruates might mean that your condition is getting worse.
Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder and bulimia are sometimes conflated, but are a little different. People with binge eating disorder experience incidents of eating until they are uncomfortably full, sometimes feeling unable to stop. If you have binge eating disorder you might plan binges on certain special foods, but feel shame or guilt when the experience is over. These feelings can lead to a feeling of secrecy around food, leading you to prefer eating alone or to hide supplies of food.
Bulimia is different from binge eating disorder because it involves the extra step of “purging” the consumed food, either by throwing up on purpose or using laxatives. People with bulimia can also have some of the same fixations on exercising and food rituals as people with anorexia and might also experience significant damage to the body, especially the lining of the mouth, throat, and stomach.
How stressors affecting the LGBTQ community might impact disordered eating
The impact of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia on LGBTQ people is detrimental to overall mental health, and therefore might contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
These include potential stressors such as:
- Bullying and harassment
- Discrimination in housing, employment, or other spheres
- Rejection from families and communities
- Living with microaggressions and minority stress
- Internalized homophobia, biphobia, and/or transphobia
As in non-LGBTQ communities, constrictive ideals about body image can affect LGBTQ people’s relationship with food. Research shows this is particularly a factor for gay and bisexual men, who are disproportionally represented among men with eating disorders.
For nonbinary and transgender people, societal expectations regarding the body and gender can interplay with gender dysphoria in a very complex manner, which can trigger the emergence of an eating disorder.
The clinical roots of eating disorders often contain additional factors beyond the commonly known elements of weight and beauty standards. For example, survivors of physical assault and childhood sexual abuse are more likely to develop eating disorders.
If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, getting checked out by a medical doctor is really important in order to find out if malnourishment, gastrointestinal tissue damage, or other possible impacts of eating disorders are affecting your body. Your medical doctor might refer you to a dietician if you are very underweight or need help developing a nourishing, healthy meal routine.
Mental and emotional support are a major part of eating disorder recovery. The LGBTQ community faces many challenges but also has incredible resilience - you might find that connecting more with people like you who have similar life experiences can give you an increased sense of strength.
Therapy is a great resource to help you heal past traumas that may have contributed to disordered eating, unpack additional factors like internalized queerphobia and unhealthy weight and beauty standards, and build the tools you need to avoid relapsing into old patterns.
If you’re looking to start therapy as part of changing your relationship to food and eating, I encourage you to book a free phone consultation with me by clicking the button below. I’d be happy to discuss how therapy can support you through this journey.