I was in sixth grade when I started to realize and explore my identity as a queer person. And, like many other students, I also started to hear negative comments and derogatory slurs about LGBTQ people in my school. It was by no coincidence that I began engaging in eating-disorder behaviors shortly thereafter.
Historically, eating disorders have been depicted in mass media (television shows, magazines, and works of fiction) as illnesses associated with white, straight, cisgender female adolescents. However, they affect people of all demographics and backgrounds. In fact, there have been multiple studies that show that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately susceptible to developing eating disorders.
Research shows that as early as twelve years old, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at a much higher risk of binge-eating and purging, including laxative abuse and/or vomiting, than their heterosexual peers. Additionally, a survey of nearly 300,000 college students found that transgender students had over four times greater risk of being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and two times greater risk of eating disorder symptoms such as purging.
Essentially, LGBTQ students are more likely to experience eating disorders and their symptoms at a higher rate than their straight and cisgender peers. And this may not be a coincidence: There are several unique experiences that queer youth go through that may be related to developing an eating disorder. These include, but are not limited to, stress surrounding coming out, internalized negative beliefs about oneself, and discrimination and bullying. LGBTQ people may also face challenges that prevent them from seeking out or obtaining treatment and support.
There are many factors that can contribute to developing an eating disorder; a need for control, experiences of trauma, underlying mental illness, and societal pressures that glorify a “perfect body” are just a few. For me, one of the earliest reasons that I began to engage in disordered eating was an identity impairment caused by being a closeted queer person afraid to come out.
As a young person struggling to figure out my sexuality, I felt like there were no resources or people to help me during that time, and walking in the hallway to hear slurs like “that’s so gay” only made me feel even more ostracized. Similarly, I felt like my identity was being discredited when I came out as gender non-binary, because my peers and teachers alike refused to call me by my correct pronouns. So without a community to turn to as an outlet to help me navigate and grow confident in my identity, I turned to creating an identity in another community.
In my experience, dieting websites and programs were a direct gateway into darker pathways online that promoted and advocated for eating-disorder behaviors. While dieting programs and calorie-tracking websites taught me how to restrict my intake, pro-eating disorder websites taught me how to take that obsession further and how to hide it from others. Although I finally got what I wanted – a seemingly “supportive” community – I paid the price of years of suffering physically, socially, and emotionally. This is why it was important for me to find a community that actually affirmed and supported all of my identities and my recovery process as an LGTBQ student.
In high school, I finally found a consistent and supportive LGBTQ community in my hometown as well as through GLSEN advocacy online. Community that affirms my identity helped me feel empowered, supporting my mental health and wellbeing. However, the “stickiness” of the eating-disorder label followed me for a while. It is important to note that recovery is a process, not perfection. Now, I am proud to say that I am confident in my identity as a bisexual, non-binary, femme, powerhouse in recovery from an eating disorder rather than someone whose only sense of self is connected to food and weight.
There must be a change in the way we discuss and prevent eating disorders, as we are leaving entire populations behind. Popular culture has a responsibility to increase awareness of LGBTQ identities in general, and reflect the accurate nature of our lives to include mental health and eating disorders.
Once we begin these difficult conversations, we must start implementing supports for LGBTQ students. In health class, this may mean sharing statistics about how eating disorders affect LGBTQ youth. More generally, this means we must change the way we often discuss what makes a “normal body,” and move away from the gender roles and expectations that may be communicated through curriculum. There is no “normal” way to have a body, be a certain gender, or to love someone. What may be an offhand comment can irreparably harm a student’s self-image.
Right now, you can support LGBTQ youth, especially those with eating disorders, by learning more about and implementing supports in school for LGBTQ students. These supports can come in the form of supportive educators, inclusive and affirming policies, inclusive curriculum, and student clubs that support LGBTQ visibility. Implementing these supports can result in students feeling empowered, so that their sense of self-worth can grow.
Katie Regittko is a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council. James Van Kuilenburg, another member, also contributed to this piece.