Over my 25+ years of helping individuals recover from eating disorders, I have treated many members of the LGBTQ community. Although the climate of acceptance for people of all sexual orientations has greatly improved over the years, being a part of the LGBTQ community still has its own unique stressors, and of course, it’s risks for being prone to eating disorders.
Additionally, an enormous amount of bigotry and discrimination still exists. I always feel saddened when a prospective LGBTQ patient has to come out to me over the phone before even meeting me to make sure I will not judge them or discriminate against them in therapy because of their orientation. Unfortunately, this happens all too often with other medical providers. It’s difficult enough to get up the courage to ask for help to recover from an eating disorder; to have the added fear that you will be harassed for your sexual orientation is awful.
To be quite honest, much more research is needed to even begin to crack the seal on the relationship between eating disorders and sexuality. The truth is, body image, gender identity, sexuality, and eating disorders must further be studied to find out how their relationships with one another effect individuals in the LGBTQ community, and how the balance between all these issues can be a recipe for developing these harmful conditions.
LGBTQ people are often faced with challenges that are unique to them, putting them at a greater risk than those of the general population for developing any number of eating disorders. As you know, stress is an enormous trigger for eating disordered behavior. While the research remains limited on eating disorders among LGBTQ+ populations, existing research shows that:
Rejection is a key factor
- Whether one has “come out” or not can lead to some serious fear of rejection, even when seeking counseling.
- On the other hand, experiences with coming out, rejection by friends, family, at school or at work can contribute to low self-esteem and poor self-image.
- These experiences can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without receiving proper guidance and coping mechanisms.
Discrimination Is Real
- In school, at work, and beyond, discrimination can occur with or without violence, emotional turmoil, and may even border on emotional abuse causing undue stress and PTSD.
- Bullying is all too common, and is often experienced without justice or meaningful protection.
The Risk Starts Early
- Gay males were seven times more likely to report binging and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males (neda.org)
- Beginning as early as the age of 12, teens who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual experience higher risks of eating disorders, including binge-eating and purging.
- Among the homeless youth community, up to 42% identify themselves as a member of the LGBTQ community.
Minorities among the LGBTQ Community are even more vulnerable
- Research shows the prevalence of eating disorders increases among Black and Latina LGBTQ members,
- Females who identified as “mostly heterosexual,” lesbian, or bisexual were nearly twice as likely to binge-eating at least monthly over the last year. (nationaleatingdisorders.org)
Limited Access and Barriers to Treatment
As if it isn’t tough enough to face all these risk factors, there are also mountains to climb when it comes to receiving quality treatment. Because those who identify as LGBTQ have so many unique aspects to their lives, it’s important for qualified professionals to be well-versed in the problems they face, in the reactions they may have during treatment, and to be able to compassionately offer care and treatment in a way that is suited for the best possible outcome of anyone going through these unique struggles.
If you’ve ever tried to get treatment for an eating disorder you may have experienced some of these barriers:
- Challenges accessing qualified support or treatment.
- Lack of culturally competent staff at support/treatment centers.
- Insufficient knowledge or resources regarding eating disorders among culturally competent or LGBTQ experienced providers.
How Healers Are Making Progress
With more awareness and focus on LGBTQ issues and hardships has come a movement towards not only acceptance but paving the way towards more drop-in centers, alliances, community health and resource centers designed and developed with the intention of helping LGBTQ youth and adults alike to gain better access to treatment and resources.
More and more providers like me are striving for cultural competence and learning new and innovative ways to deliver counseling and therapeutic help in a way that will benefit you.
While the research remains limited, it is my goal and intention to bring access to well deserved treatment for all. If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community and you’re ready to start moving towards recovery from your eating disorder, there’s a few simple ways to start.
Research shows that a sense of connectedness is one of a multitude of factors that help when it comes to eating disorder recovery. Feeling connected to the LGBTQ community was shown in one study to be correlated with fewer eating disorders.
In this way, feeling connected to one’s community could have many benefits from increased self-esteem and a lowered fear of rejection. The peer support given and being received is an added benefit when reaching out and joining your community.
Move Towards Acceptance
In the same way that you accept others as they come, you should focus some of that positive energy inward. The biggest relief you’ll ever feel is the whole-hearted acceptance for who you are. The sense of empowerment you’ll gain from accepting yourself just as you are being often the first step towards the attitude and perspective change that will fuel your path towards overcoming your eating disorder. If friends and loved ones will not support you, seek counseling support to set firm limits with them.
Self-Love and Self-Care
Once you’ve taken a few steps towards acceptance, it’s time to start working on self-love and self-care. Start by doing things just for you. If it’s difficult to believe you deserve quality self-care, talk with good friends or close family members to get support to start believing you do.
When you get to a place where happiness and self-love reside in your heart, take the next step and give back. Give back to the people who helped get you to where you are, give back to your community, and give back to those who need it most. Moving in a positive direction where love and kindness flow freely from and to you helps keep your mind and body healthy and powerful to stay ahead of your eating disorder and negative behaviors.
Remember, if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, youth, or the parent of an LGBTQ youth facing an eating disorder, there’s help for you. Please don’t fight this battle alone, reach out and get the help you need from a qualified eating disorder specialist. Jump starting your eating disorder recovery is just a phone call away. And remember that you are safe here.