Last week was Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2018, and it’s time we talk about the intersections of queerness and disordered eating.
There’s research that suggests that eating disorders are more prevalent in the LGBTQ+ population than among straight folks. It makes intuitive sense that that would be so — in cis-queer relationships we are with people whose bodies more often than not offer a direct comparison to our own. Add in our cultural idea of gender and bodies — femme bodies are softer, masculine bodies hard, androgynous bodies are lithe, sharp — and the stage is set for all sorts of bodily complexes. If your body does not conform to the societal idea of the gender you identify with, it makes all the sense in the world that you might feel like you need to work to change that, and along the way fall into the patterns and habits and maybe-self-loathing that comprise the lived experience of an eating disorder.
According to NEDA, queer girls are more likely to experience binge-type behavior than their straight peers, and queer boys are disproportionately more likely to experience body dysmorphia and disordered eating, particularly of the bulimic type. A study on college students showed that transfolx are four times more likely to be diagnosed with a restrictive eating disorder, and twice as likely to engage in purging behaviors than their cis-female counterparts (the study does not compare transfolx and cis people generally). And this groundbreaking new study found that over 50% of LGBTQ youth are struggling with eating disorders.
Cultural and gender expectations of bodies do damage in ways that can be largely unseen — eating disorders are frequently invisible to the outside eye. We fetishize portrayals of the most extreme cases, and in the most culturally acceptable bodies (cis-white-wealthy-women), and while we in one breath decry the dangers of anorexia, in another we deplore our nation’s rising weight in minute detail. We shame anyone above a size 6 while systematically denying access to health to people of color and poor folks. We receive such a garbled mess of messaging around how our bodies should be that we lose the ability to accept and care for them as they are.
I remember thinking about my body in high school and wondering, worrying, about how to be with another body when I felt, bone-deep, that my body was unworthy. I looked at other girls’ bodies and felt the agony of comparison and was unable to parse out what was actually attraction. I think if I had confronted my queerness for what it was in high school, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it — it would have been another terrifying way my body eluded my grasping control, another thing that would open me up to mockery or shame. To further complicate matters, my first girlfriend was this tiny, brutal creature who absolutely did not like to eat. When we first started dating, we would spend all day together in the city and not eat. I didn’t like to eat in front of her because I wanted her to see me as this perfect thing, needless and beautiful, and she didn’t like to eat, period. Thinking of her, of our bodies together, of how I felt having a bigger body than my girlfriend, all proved strong motivation to wait just a little longer, to eat a little less. We had a toxic relationship — another thing not visible enough in queer conversation is queer relationship abuse — and one that enabled and encouraged my own disordered behaviors.
My experience is anomalous in the sense that ciswomen in relationships with other ciswomen tend not to experience restrictive-type disordered eating; we are actually less likely to do so than ciswomen in heterosexual relationships. Not so for cis-queer men, who, despite only representing about 5% of the total “male” population, comprise 42% of the population of cismen with eating disorders. Toxic masculinity likely plays a role; the “ideal” masculine body type as frequently represented in the gay community is slim, muscular, and often white — the weight of the male gaze in combination with an internalized idea that eating disorders are a feminine plague would seem to create a culture of silence for those suffering. Eating disorders, too, are fundamentally a mental health issue, and the queer community is severely lacking in mental health support.
The trans community has shown particular susceptibility to eating disorders. Reporting by Teen Vogue suggests that our cultural norms around gender and bodies combined with the stressors of either coming out in a potentially unsafe environment or suppressing vital parts of one’s identity are key contributors. Trans youth, and all queer youth, are at disproportionate risk of houselessness and unstable home environments due to a lack of familial support; this instability is another contributing stressor. Regulating the body’s appearance through restriction or binging represents a way for trans youth to exercise control over bodies that might not match their gender identity.
Nearly every piece of media that’s been made about eating disorders shows the same story, despite the breadth of the issue and the diversity of experience that exists. I’ve struggled with disordered eating since I was a child and still do; it’s got a lot less to do with my weight in pounds and a lot more to do with feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety — all things that the LGBTQ community disproportionately suffers from. Enough is enough. Eating disorders are a queer issue. Eating disorders are a mental health issue. Eating disorders are an access to health issue. Eating disorders are a class issue. Eating disorders are a racialized issue. This EDAW week and each one going forward should work to highlight that.