Recent research shows a disturbing trend that certain segments of the LGBT community are significantly more likely than others segments to suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia and bulimia. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders can stem from any combination of factors such as fear of rejection when coming out to family and friends, internalized negative beliefs about one’s sexual orientation, bullying and other instances of violence, and homelessness (up to 42% of homeless youth identify as LGBT).
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Of all parts of the LGBT community though, eating disorders are most prevalent in gay and bisexual men. Attempting to find the connection between the two, researchers Matthew Feldman, Ph.D. and Ilan Meyer, Ph.D. provide a likely explanation, which they refer to as the “sociocultural perspective.” According to their theory, both the media and the gay male community can negatively affect a gay man’s body image, similar to the way the media and the heterosexual female community can negatively a woman’s body image. In their research paper, Feldman and Meyer explain, “The perspective posits that gay and bisexual men are affected by social norms and values that guide cultural notions of beauty. Gay and bisexual men aim to sexually attract men, and therefore, they are subject to similar pressures and demands as heterosexual women.”
According to Eating Disorder Hope (EDH), an organization committed to helping individuals with eating disorders, one of the main offenders perpetrating the idea of what the male body should like (young, muscular, and toned) are men’s magazines and advertisements. Although promoting the notion of a “perfect” male body through mass media can make all men feel physically inadequate, EDH reports, “gay men are affected more than heterosexual men, with single gay men affected most of all.”
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Shirtless Glamour Model
Interestingly, while gay and bisexual men are susceptible to the concept of the “perfect” male body, EDH states that lesbian and bisexual women are not. Instead, these women tend to embrace a more positive image of their bodies and are less likely to worry about cultural notions about the “ideal” female form. “Androgynous and masculine identifying lesbians are more experienced at accepting themselves as being different from societal and media-represented norms,” EDH asserts. Furthermore, lesbian women who primarily associate with other lesbian or bisexual women are less susceptible to feelings of physical inadequacy when society encourages them to attain the “ideal” female body compared to lesbians who have primarily heterosexual friends.
While fewer studies have been done on transgender individuals and their susceptibility to eating disorders, what little research there is shows trans people are at high risk of developing anorexia or bulimia because of extreme unhappiness with their bodies. Accordingly, gender reassignment is often a proposed treatment to eating disorders for these individuals. EDH explains:
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Biologically male [transgender individuals] aspire to be ‘super-female’, accentuating their feminine characteristics. They also equate femininity with slimness. Biologically female [transgender individuals], on the other hand, recognize that low weight suppresses menstruation and secondary sexual characteristics. It is therefore not a drive for thinness – which is not perceived to be a particularly masculine trait – but a desire to lose feminine characteristics which causes dietary restriction.
While the amount of research that has been done on LGBT individuals and eating disorders is limited, there’s undeniably a part of the LGBT community that suffers from an increased risk of anorexia and bulimia. It’s worrying that gay men and transgender individuals seem so strongly affected by this disorder due in part to cultural notions of beauty and social stigmas. To combat eating disorders and body image problems, we need to appreciate that people come in many different shapes and sizes, end the practice of body shaming and adopt an emotionally positive approach to promoting healthy living throughout the media and society.