Eating Disorders and the LGBTQIA Community

In recent years, an increasing body of research has shown that eating disorders are disproportionately common in the LGBTQIA community. For instance, a 2018 report from The Trevor Project, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), and Reasons Eating Disorder Center revealed that more than half of the participants surveyed (all of whom were young people who identified as LGBTQ) had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. What’s more, another 21% reported that they thought they might have an undiagnosed eating disorder. Previous research backs up these results; for example, one study using data from a national survey from the American College Health Association (ACHA) indicated that 16% of trans men surveyed had been diagnosed with an eating disorder—as opposed to less than one percentage point of straight cisgender men surveyed.

What are the contributing factors at play in this troubling trend?

Minority Stress

In many cases, the issue isn’t that having a marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity directly causes an eating disorder. Rather, research has shown that having a marginalized sexual orientation and/or gender identity can be connected to increased life stress in general—a subset of the larger concept known as minority stress.

Facing discrimination, stigma, and prejudice on a daily basis—whether within interpersonal relationships, in a school or work setting, or simply in society in general—is a common experience for people who identify as LGBTQIA. Those day-to-day experiences can create a lot of stress and anxiety, which can in turn make an individual more likely to develop an eating disorder. For people with more than one minority identity (gay Black men, for instance), this stress can be even greater. Indeed, NEDA reports that eating disorders are at least as common for Black and Latinx people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual as they are for White people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Beauty Standards

It’s well-documented that pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty and body image are contributing factors to many individuals’ eating disorders. For people who identify as LGBTQIA, that pressure can be especially pronounced. For instance, those who identify as trans—or who are otherwise confronting a discrepancy between their own bodies and society’s expectations for what their bodies ought to be—may have a particularly difficult time accepting their bodies as they are.

Similarly, the process of contemplating one’s own self-image and attractiveness to others—which is in many cases an essential aspect of coming out as LGBTQIA—might bring up insecurities that could lead to developing an eating disorder. And just as trying to conform to straight beauty standards can be a risk factor for developing an eating disorder, so too might beauty standards in specific LBGTQIA communities contribute to eating disorders’ prevalence in those communities. For example, one study indicated that in general, gay men were more likely than straight men to feel dissatisfied with their physical appearance. What’s more, social media and the constant presence of unattainable standards can further exacerbate these difficulties for individuals of any sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Need for Tailored Treatment

Because of the unique stresses and contexts that may affect members of the LGBTQIA communities, it’s essential for eating disorder treatment to be sensitive to these particular challenges, and for practitioners to offer solutions tailored to the needs of LBGTQIA individuals. Columbus Park provides customized treatment and resources for LGBTQIA people of all ages who may be struggling with disordered eating.  Please don’t hesitate to contact us to learn more.