Running from February 27th to March 5th, 2023, Eating Disorder Week is a time for awareness and education about the often-invisible illnesses. The stigma and shame associated with eating disorders stop many from speaking about their experiences and seeking help.
It is often through seeing others share their own stories that people find courage to do so themselves. I have lived with Bulimia for over 10 years, have been in and out of eating disorder services, and have existed in a cycle of weight loss and gain for longer than I can remember.
Being in a majority-queer friendship group, however, I’m not the only one – in fact, most of my queer friends have had, or still currently still have an eating disorder. After doing some more research, I found that this isn’t a coincidence – in the US, researchers have found that over half of LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13-24 have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and this is not on the decrease.
Since 2007, studies started analysing the correlation between sexual orientation and eating disorders. Those studies found that “gay and bisexual men had a significantly higher prevalence of lifetime full syndrome bulimia, subclinical bulimia, and any subclinical eating disorder” At the time, 5% of the U.S. population was thought to be gay, yet 42% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder identified as LGBTQ.
More recently, queer women are reported as twice as likely to experience binge eating than those who identify as heterosexual, and data also shows that LGBTQ+ people are at a significantly higher risk of engaging in disordered eating behaviours from age 12 than their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts.
The prevalent theory given for the increased number here is due to the stress that LGBTQ+ people endure as minorities. Social stress and anxiety caused by internalising negative messages, discrimination, and the fear of being harassed lead to anxiety and depression, which in turn lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms including eating-disordered behaviours.
Whether they are aware of their identity or not, many queer people know from a young age that they are “different”, which can cause stress and fear in trying to cover that up. Gender non-conforming people are at the highest risk of developing an eating disorder, often due to a higher level of discrimination and attempts to change their bodies to fit an “ideal” type that society has suggested they need to fit their gender.
This standard of course also exists with cis queer people – the gay community, just like the straight community, praises an idealised body type that for many is unattainable.
LGBTQ+ people may also face more barriers to recovery – a lack of culturally contextual treatment leads to ineffective help, and many queer people don’t have the support of their families to help them in their recovery.
However, with general society becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, the societal stressors that lead to disordered eating should decrease, and in turn, the rate of eating disorders. Also on the rise are LGBTQ+ help centres, meaning more support is being offered to those struggling.
Eating disorders can be devastating, and they can impact people’s ability to function at work, in their social lives, and in their relationships. The topic of an eating disorder is often taboo and many feel shame at their behaviour and fear asking for help as a result.
Through increased awareness and education about eating disorders, we can change the idea of what an eating disorder is and who can have one as we support better access to recovery.
The high rates within the LGBTQ+ community demonstrate the real and tangible damage that discrimination can have on a community, and further support for LGBTQ+ people in the workplace, education and in wider society needs to continue to decrease these rates. In terms of access, LGBTQ+ people, and especially people of colour within the community, face more barriers to entry. This can only be changed by increasing awareness.
If you think you are suffering with an eating disorder, please reach out to: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk