LGBTQ+ and Eating DIsorders
What is a four-letter word that begins with the letter “F” and causes a spectrum of emotions from horror and avoidance on one end, to an unhealthy obsession on the other end?
Food! Although necessary or life, food can be used in excess or avoided in order to escape painful emotions, punish one’s own body, or for some type of control in a life that can seem scary and unwelcoming. This avoidance or obsession with food affects all races and genders but especially those who are struggling with belonging in a world that is saturated with all types of social ostracism. At the risk of sounding banal, this month marks the 52nd anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, so it seems appropriate to discuss the LGBTQ+ community and the prevalence of eating disorders they can suffer from.
Overall, eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors affect the LGBTQ+ population at higher rates when compared to cisgender and heterosexual populations.
Looking at anorexia nervosa, the prevalence is .1 to .4% in general, but for sexual and gender minorities, the prevalence is 1.7%. That is a huge difference! This means that in a group of 1000 people, in a general sample, one person would be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, whereas in sexual or gender minorities, 17 would be diagnosed. Although most people typically think of anorexia nervosa when they think about eating disorders, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are eating disorders that are also found to be higher in gender and sexual minorities. As a matter of fact, binge eating disorder is disproportionately higher in transgender and sexual minorities.
Even though there are numerous reasons one develops an eating disorder, a common theme is the feeling of not belonging, and the LGBTQ+ community, as seen from the Stonewall Riots up to current events, has not been well accepted by society. Social psychologists have argued that the feeling of social exclusion feels just like physical pain to the individual.1
Not belonging hurts!
If one feels excluded or is hiding who they are to be accepted by the world, they are living with shame, with the idea that if people know who I really am, I won’t be accepted. We are social creatures, and we will attempt to avoid rejection at all costs—even if by punishing our own bodies.
In the time of the Stonewall Riots, to engage in homosexual acts was a crime—except in Illinois, and to dress in clothing of the opposite sex was illegal in New York City! Even though we as a society have become progressively more accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals, there is still a large amount of stigma, fear, or lack of understanding in society that can contribute to a feeling of not belonging which in turn seems to contribute to higher rates of eating disorders. Just like the rioters at Stonewall Inn who took a stand in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, we can also take a stand and say, “No more!” We can stand up for who we are, for those we love, or even just stand up for the LGBTQ+ individuals around us. We all belong no matter who we love or what gender we know ourselves to be.
1. MacDonald, G., & Leary, M. R. (2005). Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychological Bulletin, 131(2), 202-223. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.2.20