By Shelby Clark
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) recently compiled multiple findings on eating disorders in the LGBTQ community.
With 20 million women and 10 million men affected by eating disorders in the U.S., the illnesses are certainly not limited to the LGBT community. However, according to various sources, 15 percent of gay and bisexual men reported having a full or sub-threshold eating disorder at some point in their life, versus 4.6 percent of heterosexual males responding the same.
Furthermore, gay males were seven times more likely to binge and 12 times more likely to purge than surveyed straight males. Gay and bisexual adolescents were significantly more likely to have fasted, vomited, or purged in another manner than heterosexual peers.
As gay men are thought to represent 5 percent of the total male population, statistics show roughly 42 percent of men with eating disorders identify as gay or bisexual. Amongst all men, the rate of either past or current experience with an eating disorder is close to one in three men, instead of the previously thought one in 10.
Some small studies also found that men are more likely to have been overweight before the onset of an eating disorder (as opposed to a healthy weight on onset for women). Men are also more likely to use excessive exercising as a form of purging than women, and 33 percent of adolescent males use unhealthy weight control behavior.
Research indicated that lesbian women seemed to experience less body dissatisfaction overall. However, females identifying as lesbian and bisexual were still at a higher risk of binge-eating than their heterosexual peers, with research showing double the rate of binge-eating than straight peers.
Elevated rates of purging by laxative abuse or vomiting were also found amongst lesbian and bisexual girls as compared to heterosexual adolescents.
Across all sexes, LGBTQ-identifying individuals were more likely to have an eating disorder or disordered eating habits than heterosexual peers in the same group. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens often had disordered eating habits as early as age 12.
NEDA posits certain issues may explain the seemingly disproportionate rate of eating disorders within the LGBTQ community, specifically among teenagers.
Internalization of negative messages and beliefs towards one's sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity may result in an eating disorder. A fear of coming out and a fear of rejection, a personal experience with violence or some form of trauma due to their orientation, or experiences with bullying and discrimination may all be further factors in the LGBT rate of eating disorders.
NEDA even considers body image ideals within some "LGBT cultural contexts" to partially influence eating disorder development.
What can one do with this new information? Spread the data so more people are aware of the often misunderstood problem.
NEDA's 27th National Eating Disorders Awareness Week recently ran from Feb. 23 to March 1. The theme of this year's week – "I Had No Idea" – goes beyond just a week. Many misconceptions surround eating disorders, ranging from thinking the illnesses are "lifestyle choices" to thinking the conditions are rare amongst men.
"I Had No Idea" aims to disprove incorrect perceptions of eating disorders by circulating more information on what the behaviors look like, what kind of help is available, and what the statistics are on its prevalence amongst the heterosexual and LGBT communities.
Free resources, including educator and parent toolkits, volunteer speakers, and more are available on NEDA's website, http://www.myneda.org.