Confusion, Discrimination & Eating Disorders

Are LGBT+ people more likely to suffer from eating disorders? Credits: Cristy McKena

Are LGBT+ people more likely to suffer from eating disorders? Credits: Cristy McKena

Nowadays I feel disembodiment when I reflect on my own battle with anorexia. The relationship between my sexuality and my suffering was not something I seriously considered until recently. Issues surrounding my sexuality were by no means the sole cause of my anorexia—far from it. Like every other sufferer it was an intricate web of factors that contributed to my illness. I had grappled with questions about my sexuality from a very tender age and, as cliché as it sounds; I sensed that I was different, which left me awkward and uncomfortable.

By the time I reached secondary school I was so acutely aware that I didn’t fit in; that I sought refuge behind books, inevitably attracting the malice of playground bullies. I became more and more desperate just to be like the other girls. They laughed at me when I appeared on ‘own-clothes day’ draped in baggy tracksuits from the boys’ department. They laughed and accused me of ugliness, weirdness, being a loser. One day something snapped in me; I yearned to be ‘pretty’, wear the latest fashions, the immaculate hairstyles, and make up. Suddenly, I went from geek to chic. Boys started to pay attention; too much attention for someone who had no interest in them whatsoever. It scared me.

I thought the problem was my newly womanly body. My loathing for it swelled. I ran on that treadmill until every last curve disappeared. I looked like a malnourished pre-pubescent boy. I lost my periods, my hormones deactivated. Was I trying to de-sex myself? My sexuality scared me. Starvation mode shut down all sexual feelings. I feared my sexuality, and this seemed an easy way out. I thought that I could starve the pain away; if I could just shrink myself away from the bullies, fade away without anyone realising. I craved the anaesthesia, quickly becoming addicted to the disordered behaviours and eventually spiralling out of control. It is the bitterest pill to swallow.

At the mention of eating disorders, anorexia or bulimia typically spring to mind, often accompanied by images of a young, white, heterosexual girl. In reality, eating disorders span an extensive spectrum. They are silent killers stealing victims from every stratum of society. There is no simple causal factor for the onset of an eating disorder; in fact, the causes are a complex myriad of biological, psychological, social and emotional factors.

Recent research, however, reveals a worrying connection between sexuality and chronic discontentment with body image, often culminating in eating disorders or other forms of self-harm. Much of this research suggests that LGBT+ identifying males confront an increased risk of developing body dissatisfaction and eating or exercise disorders.

A 1996 study by French et al into the correlation between sexual orientation and eating disorders in adolescents suggested that LGBT+ identifying males are over 15% more likely to report discomfort with their bodies than heterosexual men. They are also more likely to frequently diet or engage in purging behaviours, including vomiting and compulsive exercise. While sources suggest that LGBT+ men comprise 5% of the male population, a disconcerting 42% of men diagnosed with eating disorders identify as LGBT+. The same study divulged that LGBT+ identifying females are over 50% more likely than heterosexual females to report poor body image. However, it is always wise to exercise caution when analyzing survey results, given that multiple factors such as embarrassment may warp the answers, particularly if those surveyed still struggle with coming to terms with their sexual identity.

However, it is rather plausible that members of the LGBT+ community would fall prey to eating disorders given that many still bear the crosses of a highly hetero-normative society. Gender-identity confusion, discrimination, bullying and feelings of alienation can all upsurge and manifest themselves in low self-esteem, negative body image and subsequently eating disorders. For many, the concept of coming-out often involves fear of rejection or torment. All these things create ideal conditions for eating disorders and related incarnations of self-hate. Unfortunately, many believe that eating disorders ostensibly offer a way to regain control of a situation – to self-destruct and numb the pain.

It is a high price to pay for being different; for being bullied and for being misunderstood.

Tessa Standen

Tessa Standen studies Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and is also Welfare Officer for Lent term 2015 at Newnham College

2 thoughts on “Confusion, Discrimination & Eating Disorders

  1. I think it’s important to specify that the French study does NOT include trans people. I would be interested to see a study that does, but in the meantime, reporting something as ‘LGBT+’ when you mean ‘LGB’ is frustrating.

    1. We are very sorry for this. The article will be edited in the morning to reflect the nature of the study. Neither Get Real. nor the author (we believe) were aware the study excluded trans people. We hope you can make the time to check our print issue though where we have an article on trans body image. Thank you for your feedback.

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