Eating disorders are disproportionately common in segments of the LGBTQ community. Disproving the myth that these illnesses impact only straight, cisgender people, research and personal accounts show that all sexual and gender identities are affected—and sexual and gender minorities perhaps even more so than non-LGBTQ people.
The LGBTQ acronym encompasses several distinct sexual and gender identities. It is an umbrella term that represents a group as diverse and varied as non-LGBTQ people, though often treated as a singular group. While we cannot generalize eating disorder experiences within the LGBTQ community—or outside of it—here we explore eating disorders in one segment: those who identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB). These terms refer to sexual orientation, while “transgender” refers to gender identity. For more on eating disorders in those who identify as transgender, please read Eating Disorders in the Transgender Community.
As with other marginalized groups, LGB people are underrepresented in eating disorder research and the paradigms from which it is drawn. The few published studies offer the following statistics about eating disorders in these populations:
There is still tremendous need for representation and inclusivity of LGB people in eating disorder research, especially that which addresses how experiences may differ across lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations. As the research above suggests, those who identify as bisexual are often grouped together in research with those who identify as gay or lesbian. As a result, we know little about the unique experiences and needs of these distinct populations. We cannot assume that bisexual men and women experience food and their bodies as other segments of the LGBTQ community do, even though they experience similar social marginalization.
By the same token, we cannot apply our dominant understanding of eating disorders indiscriminately to those who identify as LGB, as this understanding largely reflects the experiences of heterosexual girls and women. To do so would be to overlook and misrepresent the unique factors contributing to eating disorders in LGB groups, as well as diverse presentations of illness and recovery. Assuming that lesbians and bisexual females are less susceptible to cultural appearance standards and thus eating disorders, for example, may mask eating disorders rooted in other contextual factors.
In addition to general risk factors, LGB-identified people experience social stressors that can contribute to the development of mental health problems, including and in addition to eating disorders. The following factors may put LGB people at particularly high risk of developing an eating disorder:
Compared to their straight counterparts, LGB people experience greater barriers to health care, including eating disorder services. Some barriers to treatment experienced by LGB people include:
Those marginalized by sexual identity as well as other identities deserve culturally and clinically competent care for their eating disorders. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community or another marginalized population struggling with food or your body, please know help is available. Reach out to The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 to connect with a personalized treatment team today.
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