Transgender and ED: Building a Body to Fit the Mold

Transgender and ED: Building a Body to Fit the Mold

When people think of eating disorders, the image that usually comes to mind is an adolescent or young adult female. Young women do make up the majority of individuals with diagnosed eating disorders while many other parts of the population suffer in silence. Eating disorder stereotypes create misconceptions about other people who might also be at risk.

An eating disorder is a condition that does not discriminate. It affects underrepresented populations as well and these people are often more at risk of developing an ED. For example, Transgender individuals, or those experiencing gender dysphoria, make up one of the overlooked segments.

Research shows that transgender individuals have a higher ED prevalence rate compared to their cisgender peers (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). What does it mean to be transgender and how do eating disorders affect this particular portion of the population?

Defining Gender Dysphoria

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines transgender as an “umbrella term encompassing those whose gender identities or gender roles differ from those typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.” Transgender individuals experience serious difficulties like gender dysphoria as they progress through their developmental stages.

Gender dysphoria is a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction with body image and physical development. As secondary sex characteristics begin forming during puberty, this period tends to be a significant stressor for transgender people. They feel an extreme loss of control when these characteristics don’t align with their identified gender.

Eating Disorders Play Into Gender Presentation

Transgender adolescents are at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder. The loss of control over their physical appearance often leads them to seek control in other ways. Eating disorders are one solution as they allow for a hollow sense of control in terms of food, as well as real control over the appearance of their bodies.

Youths who identify as LGBTQIA+ meet ED criteria at higher rates than the general population. Transgender youth and young adults report eating disorder symptoms four times more than their cisgender peers. 63% report manipulating their weight on purpose in an attempt to better align with the gender they identify as.

Gender dysphoria is the primary symptom in transgender individuals. It describes the extreme distress and functional impairment caused by the conflict between their biological sex and gender identity. This causes significant dissatisfaction with their body and sets off the desire to change it.

The experience is similar to cisgender individuals with eating disorders. They have serious feelings of dissatisfaction with their body and use disordered eating to control their physical appearance. In the same way, transgender individuals control their appearance using disordered eating behaviors, but with the added drive to present as the opposite gender.

Addressing Both Conditions

Transgender individuals with eating disorders have an additional layer to their disorder .  The goal for many transgender people is to “pass” as the opposite gender. This means they use disordered eating to manipulate their appearance, so they align with their identified gender.

Like their cisgender peers, transgender people often look to stereotypes of the “ideal” body. This typically means achieving a certain level of thinness for women and a certain level of muscularity or masculinity for men.

Pursuing these stereotypical ideals is unrealistic for anyone, transgender and cisgender alike. But transgender individuals feel an even stronger pull to present as this exemplary version of masculinity or femininity. They hope that by manipulating their weight they can finally align their outward appearance with their internal identity.

It’s almost impossible to treat eating disorders in transgender individuals without looking at the connection between the two. Their body dissatisfaction is similar to their peers but originates from a different place. Effective eating disorder treatment for transgender people requires an understanding of the intricate distinctions between them and their cisgender peers.

How to Find Help

Oftentimes eating disorders are only one part of the problem for transgender individuals. Transgender adolescents and young adults are not only more likely to develop an eating disorder. They’re also more at risk of developing comorbid conditions like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Addressing these conditions requires an individualized approach.

They need treatment that incorporates an understanding of both gender dysphoria and disordered eating, as well as the relationship between the two. Eating disorder treatment for transgender individuals must be both informed and compassionate. Every person is a unique case and cannot be treated with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Toledo Center is a facility that recognizes the importance of serving this underserved portion of the population. Transgender individuals with eating disorders deserve the same access to high-quality, informed care. If you or a loved one needs assistance from a facility that understands, reach out to us today. One of our admissions counselors will be glad to answer any questions you may have and connect you with the help you need.