Male Eating Disorders in the LGBT Community

by Anne Hall

The increasing prevalence of eating disorders amongst men is something that more and more people are becoming aware of: In the United States alone, 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). Parents are increasingly aware that they must watch their sons, as well as their daughters, when looking for signs of a developing eating disorder and this increased awareness is something that should be appreciated.

What some people are less aware of, however, is that eating disorder rates are increased amongst the sexual minority male community compared to their ‘straight’ counterparts. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 42% of men who seek treatment for eating disorders identify as gay (Carlat, Camargo, & Herzog, 1991). What’s more, outside of the formal diagnosis of a full blown eating disorder, gay men are an incredible 12 times more likely to binge and purge than heterosexual men (Austin, 2004). This leads us to the question of why are gay men more vulnerable to developing eating disorders than heterosexual men, and how can we use this knowledge to provide help and support?

Controlling an Uncertain World

If being a teenager is difficult, then imagine how much more difficult it is to be a gay teen. Whilst many teens struggle with boundaries, with control, and with finding a place in the world that they feel that they fit in, gay teens must also deal with the added complication of coming out to their family, of living in a world that can still be very homophobic, and dealing with a wealth of feelings of shame and confusion surrounding their sexual orientation. Alissa Petee, child and adolescent primary therapist at Washington’s Eating Recovery Center, states in the article “Eating disorders are far more common in LGBTQ communities — here’s why,” that this can make the path to adulthood even more complicated for gay teens, and controlling their food intake by developing an eating disorder can help those teens to feel they have regained some control of their life in a world that all around them seems so uncertain. In males particularly, eating disorders can also develop as a reaction to feeling weak or unmuscular in comparison to their peers, and wishing to ‘bulk up’ in order or meet a perceived societal norm, match the appearance of those they admire, or fit into the perceived stereotype they feel they should be conforming to. What’s more, eating disorders often develop as a result of an interaction between biology and stress, and there are many stressors that result from being a gay teen: harassment at school and work, and the negative reactions of friends and family are sadly still very common.

An Attempt to Change The Body

For men and women that identify as being transgendered, an eating disorder can develop in conjunction with body dysmorphia, as a way of changing the way their body looks, because they have so many negative associations with it in its existing form. There is still a lot of social stigma associated with identifying as transgender, and this can be difficult to come to terms with: many transgendered teens who have not yet accepted they are transgendered (or don’t even have a clear understanding of what being transgendered means) are typically unable to even vocalize what they are feeling or truly understand why changing their body makes them feel better about the way they self-identify. It can be a very difficult and scary time for teenagers without a strong support network, and regaining control through controlling eating can sometimes become the next step if those teens are not presented with other more healthy ways of managing their emotions and dealing with the negative energy that may surround them.

The way in which LGBT individuals receive treatment for their eating disorders may differ slightly from that for heterosexual teens. This is because the eating disorder may be tied up with their LGBT identity, and therefore positive affirmation and coming to terms with their identity may be helpful to overcoming their eating disorder. However each teen is an individual and, regardless of their sexual orientation, there are a myriad of different reasons that teen may develop an eating disorder: it could well be that the eating disorder is not related to their sexual orientation, or that they have accepted their identity but cannot cope with the criticism and judgment of others. Regardless of their sexual orientation, there is no easy path back from an eating disorder. But with the right help and support, determination, and an understanding of who they are, a those teens can soon find themselves walking the road towards mental and physical health.