The cultural stereotype of someone with an eating disorder is typically straight, white and female. Data from a large body of research tells us that eating disorders are not straight, white problems; in fact, people of all genders who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community may be at higher risk for developing eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that 42% of men who have eating disorders identify as gay, even though only about 5% of all men in the general population are thought to identify as gay. Other studies suggest that transgender children are at especially high risk of developing eating disorders and that they develop EDs at higher rates than their cisgender peers.
Research on Eating Disorders in the LGBTQ+ Community
While research on the prevalence of eating disorders in the LGBTQ+ community is a crucial part of serving this population, it’s also easy to misinterpret statistics like these. These studies do not indicate that having a marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity causes individuals to develop eating disorders. Rather, the research reflects the reality that stress and anxiety can trigger eating disorders—and that sadly, our society makes being an LGBTQ+ person a highly stress and anxiety-provoking experience. This is consistent with the idea of minority stress, a concept that describes the way discrimination, stigma, and prejudice can impact mental health.
For non-white people who identify as LGBTQ+, the risks may be even higher. That’s because research also points to racial and ethnic discrepancies in eating disorder treatment. NEDA notes that people of color experience eating disorder symptoms at similar rates to white people, but that they are much less frequently asked about their symptoms by medical professionals. Black women in particular are much less likely to receive professional support for eating disorder symptoms.
The implications of the available research are clear: medical and mental health professionals must do more to identify and treat eating disorders among LGBTQ+ people, especially LGBTQ+ people of color. Here are three tips for providers on meeting the needs of LGBTQ+ people who may be dealing with eating disorders:
- Be sensitive to the unique stresses that LGBTQ+ people may face.
From overt aggression to subtler forms of discrimination, LGBTQ+ people deal with a range of daily stresses that may contribute to eating disorder symptoms. And unrealistic beauty standards and challenges around body image (both of which are known to be contributing factors in some people’s eating disorders) may be especially challenging for members of the LGBTQ+ community to navigate.
- Remember that the LGBTQ+ community is not homogenous.
Sexual orientation and gender identity look different for everyone, and it’s important for clinicians to avoid making generalizations and assumptions about the experiences of their LGBTQ+ patients. Remember, too, that people of any racial or ethnic background can experience eating disorders and that people of color who identify as LGBTQ+ may be dealing with additional stress and marginalization.
- Foster connection and community.
Studies indicate that LGBTQ+ young people who feel connected to others in their lives experience more positive mental health outcomes. Medical and mental health professionals can meet the needs of LGBTQ+ patients by helping them connect with LGBTQ+-friendly organizations and groups and by including supportive family members in treatment.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss treatment options.