The Internal Battle: Eating Disorders in the GLBT Community

“Assumptions, whether true or false, regarding eating disorders in the LGBT community often stem from various sociocultural perspectives,” says Troy Roness, international activist and educator for eating disorders, GLBT issues, and healthy body image, and currently serving as the first male member on the board for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

“I don’t believe that whether you identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender that we should assume one thing or another about eating disorders or the statistics attached with them. Let’s face it, we all struggle with body image in some form or another; and unfortunately, body image concerns are only becoming worse. “

NEDA recently compiled multiple findings on eating disorders in the GLBTQ community. Eating disorders are certainly not limited to the GLBT community, with the most recent report that 20 million women and 10 million men affected by various eating disorders in the U.S. alone.

However, NEDA reports that the prevalence of various eating disorders is significantly higher in sexual minorities (read: the GLBT community) than among heterosexuals. Roness says that of those 10 million men, many studies have shown that up to 42 percent of the men diagnosed were gay or bisexual; another study outlined the ratio of gay men to straight men with eating disorders as being as high as six to one.

Furthermore, gay males were seven times more likely to binge and 12 times more likely to purge than surveyed straight males. Gay and bisexual adolescents were significantly more likely to have fasted, vomited, or purged in another manner than heterosexual peers.

Among all men, though, the rate of either past or current experience with an eating disorder is close to one in three, instead of the previously thought one in 10. This is signifying that men, regardless of sexuality, are increasingly making up the numbers of those diagnosed. NEDA is also reporting that men are more likely to have been overweight before the onset of an eating disorder (as opposed to a healthy weight at onset for women). Men are also more likely to use excessive exercising as a form of purging than women, and 33 percent of adolescent males use unhealthy weight control behavior.

This is in stark contrast to NEDA’s reports on lesbian and bisexual women. Roness says that research involving women who identify as lesbian are mixed; but most indicate no significant differences with their heterosexual counterparts concerning the number of eating disorders.

While NEDA’s research indicated that lesbian women seemed to experience less body dissatisfaction overall, females identifying as lesbian and bisexual were still at a higher risk of binge-eating than their heterosexual peers, with research showing double the rate of binge-eating than straight peers. Elevated rates of purging by laxative abuse or vomiting were also found among lesbian and bisexual girls as compared to heterosexual adolescents.

Following this trend, Roness says the transgender community faces extremely high levels of body dissatisfaction, which, in effect may prompt large numbers of eating disordered behaviors. Despite the disappointing lack of research in relation to transgender individuals and eating disorders, Roness says there has been mention of male-to-female persons developing eating disorders more frequently due to the perceived notion of needing to be “skinny” or “small.”

“Odds are stacked against the LGBT community for a variety of reasons, from the very beginning,” Roness says. “Whether you are a young individual struggling with an eating disorder, or you are someone middle-aged struggling, the majority of eating disorders stem from one thing: emotional hurt or emotional trauma.”

Across all sexes, GLBTQ-identifying individuals are more likely to have an eating disorder or disordered eating habits than heterosexual peers in the same group, according to NEDA’s study. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens often have disordered eating habits as early as age 12. NEDA argues that certain issues may explain the seemingly disproportionate rate of eating disorders within the GLBTQ community, specifically among teenagers.

According to Roness, GLBT individuals face overwhelming obstacles rarely identified or noticed by their straight counterparts: coming out, fear of rejection, faith issues, internalized negative thoughts regarding identity, bullying, physical/emotional abuse, and body image concerns.  He says, “Eating disorders are never the result of a singular experience in one’s life; eating disorders often stem from a plethora of factors, with one ‘trigger’ event that begins the eating disorder behavior.”

NEDA even considers body image ideals within some GLBT cultural contexts to partially influence eating disorder development. The hypersexualized ideals within GLBT culture result in increased pressures to reach idealized images.

“I have wondered, as a gay man, how ‘ideals’ between myself, other members of the LGBT community, and heterosexual people differ,” Roness says. “However, I have realized that the ‘ideal’ self picture for everyone begins as a healthy visualization of taking care of one’s self. Over time disordered thoughts of one who suffers doesn’t realize that the ideal (being attractive to others, physically fit, accepted, etc.) becomes harmful and unattainable (skinny, ‘ripped,’ controlling what is eaten, or controlling the physical as a result of an inability to control sexuality). In other words, eating disorders serve as a control mechanism: a subconscious thought process, but a devastating one. Society gives us one standard: the unattainable. The real question is why do we strive for the unattainable when we each are already part of the seven billion standards already making the world inimitable?”

But the reality is that eating disorders plague a large portion of the population, and that eating disorders and exercise addictions are generally grouped together. With so many various kinds of eating disorders (Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified [EDNOS]), the warning signs are complex. And each of these has the characteristics of exercise addictions or compulsive exercise. For each individual, however, the level of it may be different. But, Roness says, because many sufferers are often driven perfectionists, it is common for them to take working out to an unhealthy extreme.

Think you or someone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder or exercise addiction? Free resources, including educator and parent toolkits, volunteer speakers, and more are available on NEDA’s website, www.myneda.org.

Local resources can be found through the following organizations:
The Emily Program Foundation:www.emilyprogramfoundation.org
Water’s Edge Counseling & Healing Center: www.watersedgechc.com
The Joy Project: www.joyproject.org
Park Nicollet Melrose Institute: www.parknicollet.com/specialtycenters/melrose-center

One Response to The Internal Battle: Eating Disorders in the GLBT Community

  1. This is definitely a topical issue, one that widens the conversation. I think as more attention is giving to the link between growing up Gay and eating disorders, we are going to discover many important areas for development. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

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