Individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ experience a unique number of stressors that may contribute to the development of eating disorders and other body image concerns. There is limited research on how sexuality and gender identity affect body image and eating disorders. However, it is evident that eating disorders impact segments of the LGBTQ+ community. For example, beginning at the age of 12, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens may be at a higher risk for binge-eating and purging than their heterosexual peers.
There are potential factors that can play a role in the development of eating disorders for the LGBTQ+ population. For example, individuals may fear that they will face rejection by their friends, family, and co-workers. They may experience internalized negative messages about oneself due to their sexual orientation, non-normative gender expression, or transgender identity leading to the development of eating disorders. Individuals may experience discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Being a victim of bullying due to an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity may contribute to the development of eating disorders. Additionally, individuals may experience a discordance between their biological sex and gender identity, which can lead to the development of eating disorders. Individuals may also experience an inability to meet the body image ideals within LGBTQ+ cultural contexts.
There is still limited research on eating disorders in LGBTQ+ populations, however existing research does exist:
- Research shows that among the male population who have eating disorders, 42 percent identify as gay.
- Gay males are seven times more likely to report binging and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males.
- Compared to heterosexual males, gay and bisexual men have a significantly higher prevalence of lifetime full syndrome bulimia, subclinical bulimia, and any subclinical eating disorder.
- Females that identify as lesbian, bisexual, or mostly heterosexual were about twice as likely to report binge-eating at least once per month within the last year.
- There are elevated rates of binge-eating and purging in individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or “mostly heterosexual” in comparison to heterosexual peers.
- A sense of connectedness to the gay community was related to fewer current eating disorders, which suggests that feeling connected to the gay community may have a protective effect against eating disorders.
LGBTQ+ identified individuals may also experience barriers to support and treatment for eating disorders. Common barriers individuals may experience include the lack of culturally competent treatment that addresses the complexity of unique sexuality and gender identity issues. Additionally, individuals may experience a lack of support from their friends and family. There is also often a lack of eating disorder education among providers who are in the position to detect eating disorders and intervene. Research shows, that many individuals feel that resources available need to be more inclusive. Individuals feel that existing resources should not promote a gender binary or gender stereotype. Additionally, individuals express that they want to feel safe while accessing resources and do not want their sexual orientation to be an area of discrimination. Participants in one study (VanKim, Porta, Eisenberg, Neumark-Sztainer & Laska, 2016) expressed that it is important to reach out to LGBTQ+ communities with outreach materials that address healthy eating, physical activity, and healthy body image.
Eating disorders can affect anyone, and it is important for treatment specialists to educate themselves on how sexuality and gender identity can play a role in eating disorder development or a negative body image in order to provide the best care possible.
In order to learn how to promote a healthy body image, students should consider participating in The Body Project or More Than Muscles programs offered through Student Counseling Services. These workshops help students develop and maintain a positive body image and are scientifically supported eating disorder prevention programs.
For more information on body image in the LGBTQ+ community, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/general-information/lgbtq.