I was in sixth grade when I started to realize and explore my identity as a queer and trans person. And, like many other students, that’s also when I started to hear negative comments and derogatory slurs about LGBTQ+ people in my school. It was by no coincidence that I began engaging in eating-disorder behaviors shortly thereafter.
Historically, eating disorders have been depicted in mass media (television shows, magazines, and works of fiction) as illnesses associated with white, straight, cisgender female adolescents. However, they affect people of all demographics and backgrounds. In fact, there have been multiple studies that show that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately susceptible to developing eating disorders.
Research shows that as early as twelve years old, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at a much higher risk of binge-eating and purging, including laxative abuse and/or vomiting, than their heterosexual peers. Additionally, a survey of nearly 300,000 college students found that transgender students had over four times greater risk of being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and two times greater risk of eating disorder symptoms such as purging. The most recent study on the subject conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association and the Trevor Project found that 75% of LGBTQ youth have either suspected or been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and 71% of transgender students have been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Essentially, LGBTQ students, and especially those who identify as transgender, are more likely to experience eating disorders and their symptoms than their straight and cisgender peers. And this may not be a coincidence: several factors and experiences play a role in the development of eating disorders in queer youth. These include, but are not limited to, stress surrounding coming out, internalized negative beliefs about oneself, and discrimination and bullying. LGBTQ people may also face challenges that prevent them from seeking out or obtaining treatment and support such as the lack of culturally-competent treatment, lack of support from family and friends, and insufficient eating disorders education among LGBTQ+ resource providers who are in a position to detect and intervene.
Many general factors that can contribute to developing an eating disorder include a need for control, experiences of trauma, underlying mental illness, and societal pressures that glorify a “perfect body”. Eating disorders do not exist in a vacuum--97% of people with eating disorders have at least one comorbid psychiatric illnesses. For me, one of the earliest major stressors in my life was an identity impairment caused by being a closeted queer and trans person afraid to come out. When that was mixed with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder and anxiety, underlying traumas, and exposure to diet-culture-plagued media, I resorted to disordered eating behaviors that quickly spiraled.
As a young person struggling to figure out my sexuality and gender identity, I felt like there were no resources or people to help me during that time, and walking in the hallway to hear slurs like “that’s so gay” or “tranny” only made me feel even more ostracized. Similarly, I felt like my identity was being discredited when I came out as gender non-binary because my peers and teachers alike refused to call me by my correct pronouns. So without a community to turn to as an outlet to help me navigate and grow confident in my identity, I turned to creating an identity in another community.
In my experience, dieting websites and programs were a direct gateway into darker pathways online that promoted and advocated for eating disorder behaviors. While dieting programs and calorie-tracking websites taught me how to restrict my intake, pro-eating disorder websites and blogs taught me how to take that obsession further and hide it from others. Although I finally got what I wanted – a seemingly “supportive” community – I paid the price of years of suffering physically, socially, and emotionally.
Eventually, I did find a healthy, supportive community who encouraged me in recovering. However, the “stickiness” of the eating-disorder label followed me for a while, and there were bumps along the way. It is important to note that recovery is a process, not perfection. Now, I am proud to say that I am confident in my identity as a bisexual, non-binary, femme powerhouse in recovery from an eating disorder rather than someone whose only sense of self is connected to food and weight.
It was not an easy road to get here, though, especially as a member of marginalized communities. For me, it took hitting a rock-bottom and realizing “I can’t live like this anymore”—literally and figuratively—and years of treatment. (This isn’t true for everyone though—everyone struggling with food or body-image deserves help no matter where they are. Don’t wait for it to get worse before seeking out help!) Then, I had to learn how to navigate recovery as a non-binary individual when almost all of the resources on the subject is catered to women. What helped most was finding a community of queer and trans people, both in recovery from an eating disorder and not, who could affirm my identity and make me feel accepted. I decided to give up my eating disorder and instead start focusing on helping communities around me who experienced the same identity issues that I did. Recovery gave me the strength to put my heart and soul into volunteer work at my local LGBT Center where I spent time helping facilitate a youth support group, lead state-wide youth outreach, and plan social events for queer and trans youth. I made my goal to provide the resources that I needed when I was younger to youth who may have been dealing with the same struggles I was.
There must be a change in the way we discuss and prevent eating disorders, as we are leaving entire populations behind. For example, one of the main barriers that kept me from seeking out treatment for my eating disorder was the extremely gendered culture of recovery (i.e. female-only treatment centers). Popular culture has a responsibility to increase awareness of LGBTQ identities in general and reflect the accurate nature of our lives to include mental health and eating disorders.
We have to begin having these difficult conversations about who we really represent in body positivity and eating disorder awareness. There is no “normal” way to have a body, be a certain gender, or to love someone. What may be an offhand comment can irreparably harm a someone’s self-image.
This week is Transgender Awareness Week, and it’s time to talk about eating disorders among the trans community. Currently, transgender people are affected by eating disorders more disproportionally than any other demographic. Through awareness, prevention, and treatment, we can change that.