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Mental Health

Starving for Love


Gay and bi men, bi women, and trans people all have higher rates of eating disorders. How do we stop that?

It’s hard to admit, but there was a time in my life when I felt I needed permission to look in the mirror. As a young adult, I never allowed myself to like what I saw because I didn’t look like a porn star. And when you’re a young gay man living in Los Angeles, that’s the basic beauty standard.

It took a while before I was able to look past the mirror and see my real reflection — one that wasn’t etched around an idea of perfection. Turns out, once I discovered there is no such thing as perfection, I was able to back away from my compulsion to emulate the porn stars.

The truth is perfection is a marketing strategy used to convince us that no matter how good we look now, we could always look better. Of course, in order to do so we must buy another product or undergo another procedure.

If we still can’t live up to our unattainable image, we are further victimized by a marketing campaign lining someone else’s pocket. We’re all victims of self-esteem sucking consumer capitalism, even when it’s wrapped in a sexy package. Unfortunately, the journey towards that impossible-to-reach land of perfection has unforeseen consequences — and it’s disproportionately impacting the LGBT community.

A 2007 study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health (published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders) showed that 42 percent of men who have eating disorders identify as gay or bi. In fact, cisgender gay and bisexual men are seven times more likely to binge, and 12 times more likely to purge than cisgender straight men.

Additionally, the study showed over 15 percent of gay and bisexual men had, at some time, suffered from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorders, compared to 5 percent of straight men.

Researchers compared the ratio of eating disorders among gay and bisexual men who stated they were part of the gay community versus those gay and bi men who said they weren’t. Turns out, there was hardly a difference, which suggests eating disorders aren’t propagated by the social pressure of the gay community’s beauty standards alone.

Transgender people also have high rates of eating disorder symptoms. One 2015 study, published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, showed that nearly 16 percent of trans college students had been diagnosed with or treated for anorexia or bulimia in the previous year. Trans students also reported much higher rates (13.5 percent) of using diet pills in the previous month compared to cisgender straight men (less than 2 percent) and cisgender straight women (4 percent).

Bisexual young women and those unsure of their sexual orientation were found to have the highest rates of eating disorders among women in researcher Annie Shearer’s 2016 Drexel University study published in Eating Behaviors. Lesbians, overall, have been found to have higher levels of self-esteem and lower instances of internalized cultural standards about sexual attractiveness, which has led to lower rates of disordered eating among lesbian women.

Both the 1999 study, “Lesbians, bisexual women, and body image: an investigation of gender roles and social group affiliation,” published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, and “Differences Between Lesbians and Heterosexual Women in Disordered Eating and Related Attitudes,” a 2002 study in the Journal of Homosexuality, indicate that masculine, androgynous, or butch-identifying lesbians are “more experienced at accepting themselves as being different from societal and media-represented norms.” Furthermore, the highest levels of body satisfaction (and thus lower eating disorders) are found among lesbian women who have mostly lesbian and bisexual friends.

It’s not all rosy though: A 2006 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that for both men and women, “any same-sex sexual experience, no matter how infrequent, is predictive of bulimic symptoms.”

What was once thought of as merely a “young, white girl issue” thanks to film and TV, is now anything but. The landmark 2007 study showed that black and Latinx cisgender lesbians, gays, and bisexuals have at least as high a prevalence of eating disorders as white people in the same category. (Trans people were not included in the study.)

So why do gay, bi, and trans men as well as bi and trans women face higher rates of eating disorders than cisgender straight people? According to Tyler Wooten, medical director of Eating Recovery Center in Dallas, Texas, the reason might be rooted in internalized transphobia and homophobia.

“There’s a lot of messaging all over the world that [homosexuality] is a problem that’s unacceptable; it’s a disease, or it needs to be fixed.” Wooten tells Plus. As a result, this type of negativity can drive queer men to reflect a masculine ideal, leading to efforts to improve their physical value in an unconscious desire to please the world.

“The eating disorder brainwashes the individual,” Wooten adds. “I’ve had many patients say ‘I am my eating disorder, it’s part of who I am, my personality.’ It actually does help them. It makes them feel more self-assured, it improves their self-esteem a bit — until it starts to unravel.”

At the end of the day, trying to reach perfection is a losing battle. Like a poison, it infects our psyche to such a degree that we eventually let it invade and take over.

But instead of allowing ourselves to get eaten by the game, why not force ourselves to see the truth: there is no such thing as perfection. And because there’s no such thing as perfection, there’s no such thing as a flaw.

“As a society we should be watching the children,” Wooten concludes. “If they’re getting sicker and sicker, that should teach us the messaging that’s being taught is sick. We have to do a global change.”

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David Artavia