Guest contributor: Lee R.
When asked to write this blog post, I turned immediately to my good friend Google to look up some statistics and check out the latest research. What I found, or what I did not find, was revealing, albeit not entirely surprising to me. Google Scholar turned up 1,360 results for the search “LGBT eating disorder” in the last 10 years, whereas simply “eating disorder” racked up over 59,000 hits for the same time period.
It is not clear whether or not the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, etc.) community is underrepresented in eating disorder research, but it certainly is not prominent, appearing in only 2.3% of the research references. But that should not be interpreted as meaning that the disease does not impact the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The Trevor Project and NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) came together in 2018 to research the prevalence of eating disorders in LGBTQ+ youth1 and the results were staggering. About 54% of the sample had been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and an additional 21% suspected they had an eating disorder due to disordered eating habits. In another study2, it was found that nearly 16% of transgender college students had been diagnosed with an eating disorder in the past year, as opposed to approximately 2.5% of their straight, cisgender counterparts.
Though the research on LGBTQ+ eating disorders is scarce, what does exist speaks volumes. Eating disorders run rampant through this community, yet it is rarely spoken about in the LGBTQ+ community itself, and even less frequently in the mainstream eating disorder treatment community. Where there is currently silence, there needs to grow a discussion on how LGBTQ+ eating disorders develop and progress, how they present, and the best treatment modalities to help sufferers receive the best care possible.
That is not to say that mainstream providers cannot appropriately serve the LGBTQ+ community. However, if providers were educated specifically on how eating disorders impact the LGBTQ+ community, there may be an even greater success rate for recovery. As a start, here are 5 things I, and a few others in the community, wish treatment providers were more aware of:
- Gender dysphoria exists and can make it difficult for a person to live in their own body. Gender dysphoria is the feeling of distress that occurs when someone’s gender does not match the one they were assigned at birth. It can often focus on specific parts of the body that society reads as one sex or another. It can result in restriction of food, compensatory behaviors, or binge eating. Providers need to be aware of gender dysphoria, because of the added complications to recovery. Poor body image or body dysmorphia is not the only physical hurdles in those who experience gender dysphoria. Additionally, gender dysphoria is not necessarily due to poor body image, though one may trigger the other.
- Internalized homophobia is also a thing that exists. Internalized homophobia refers to the prejudices that members of the LGBTQ+ community turn inward after seeing and hearing the prejudices in society. This can lead to negative views and even shame of their own sexuality. This shame and negativity can then lead to further flawed thinking and disordered eating habits.
- Language is important. Using my pronouns is not just a suggestion. While I’ll probably present it as a timid request and tell you “it’s fine” when you mess them up, my pronouns are actually very important to me. They help me feel more at peace with who I am, especially in such a tumultuous time as the beginning stages of eating disorder recovery. By using the correct pronouns for me, you not only convey that you respect who I am, you also help me build trust and rapport. Additionally, using gender-neutral language is imperative. People of all genders can have eating disorders, using female-centric language is outdated. Help everyone feel at home by neutralizing your language.
- Do not assume we are just confused. I identify as a queer non-binary person. I am not confused about who I love or what gender I am; I am completely confident in both aspects. And it is quite possible your clients will be too. When they do come out to you, know that this means they trust you. Do not insist that it’s “a phase” or that it’s due to their eating disorder. In fact, it’s likely the other way around: eating disorders often develop and progress due to minority stress, internalized homophobia, and gender dysphoria. If your client is in the beginning stages of exploring their gender and/or sexuality, do not diminish their journey by crediting the eating disorder.
- Having culturally sensitive resources available to us is so important. Whether it’s an LGBTQ+ process group, a therapist who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or even something as simple as gender-inclusive bathrooms, having resources readily available to us helps us feel included and heard. Knowing that a treatment team is culturally competent can be a great relief for LGBTQ+ people who may otherwise have felt like they needed to keep their identity a secret.
This list is by no means extensive; it really is just a beginning. Every client is unique, and the best way to get to know what they want you to know is to open an honest conversation with them.
I have found in my experience that the staff at the Toledo Center is willing to have those honest conversations with their patients. When I first arrived at RCC in 2014, I was unsure if I wanted to come out as genderqueer. I began by talking about it with several of the other patients who then encouraged me to tell the staff. Once I did come out to everyone, the support I received from the staff and my peers did not waver. The staff was willing to learn more about my identity and use the pronouns I chose. Even when I returned in 2016, they remembered my identity and treated me with the same respect and compassion with which they treated everyone else. I believe that the acceptance I received was a vital component in making my recovery as strong as it is today.
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1 – National Eating Disorder Association. (2018). Eating Disorders Among LGBTQ Youth [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/nedaw18/NEDA -Trevor Project 2018 Survey – Full Results.pdf
2 – Diemer, E. W., Grant, J. D., Munn-Chernoff, M. A., Patterson, D., & Duncan, A. E. (2015). Gender identity, sexual orientation, and eating-related pathology in a national sample of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 57(2), 144-149.