Recent research indicates that the risk of developing an eating disorder may be higher for LGBTQ+ people. It’s important for providers who treat eating disorders to be sensitive to the unique challenges that members of the LGBTQ+ community often face. This may be especially true for providers treating people who identify as transgender, non-binary, or another non-cisgender identity.
A number of studies illuminate the particular eating disorder risks that non-cisgender people face, and a new qualitative study published in the journal Eating Behaviors offers deeper insight into their experiences. This growing body of research brings up a few key points that providers should keep in mind about eating disorders among transgender and gender diverse people.
To learn more about the language used to discuss gender identity, you can refer to the Human Rights Campaign’s helpful glossary.
Stereotypes Might Interfere with Eating Disorder Screening
Because eating disorders are so often associated with cisgender women, professionals may miss signs of an eating disorder in gender diverse people. And because providers often use standard growth curves based on sex to define healthy weight, these clinical tools are less well-suited to a person whose gender identity does not match their gender assigned at birth.
Gender Dysphoria May Contribute to the Development of Eating Disorders
Gender dysphoria is the clinical term for the distress that some people experience as a result of the mismatch between their gender identity and their assigned gender. Sometimes, the desire to make one’s body better reflect one’s gender identity can lead to behaviors associated with eating disorders. For example, a transgender woman may start eating less in order to lose weight and achieve a more stereotypically feminine body type. Or a transgender man may restrict food in order to reduce female physical characteristics like breasts or menstruation.
Additionally, spending a lot of time contemplating one’s own self-image and attractiveness to others—which is in many cases an essential aspect of coming out as LGBTQ+—might bring up insecurities that could lead to developing an eating disorder.
It’s important to note that not all gender diverse people experience gender dysphoria. Assuming that an eating disorder stems from gender dysphoria can be as harmful as ignoring gender dysphoria, so it’s important for clinicians to understand each patient’s own experience of their gender identity.
Lack of Gender-Affirming Treatment Can Make Recovery Harder
Standard eating disorder treatments may not be as helpful for individuals who do not identify as cisgender. Meal plans and nutrition advice are often designed for cisgender women and cisgender men, which leaves out anyone who doesn’t fit into those groups. What’s more, treatment focused on body acceptance may not be desirable or appropriate for people who are experiencing gender dysphoria. For example, being told to accept female physical features when you identify as male will likely increase distress rather than decreasing it. There is also a lack of gender diverse professionals treating eating disorders, which may make it harder for non-cisgender people to find clinicians who can understand their experiences and tailor treatment effectively.
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.