Eating Disorders in the LGBTQ Community



Eating disorders have long been a component of the female population. Although these disorders manifest through the denial of food, the over-consumption of food or in other myriad ways, at the heart of every food-related illness is the inability to cope with painful emotions. Often, this disorder-inducing emotion is simple shame. A girl is ashamed because she is not smart enough, an adolescent is ashamed because she is not popular enough, or a woman is ashamed because she is not a “superwoman” like she sees on magazine covers.

We always refer to eating disorders as equal-opportunity illnesses. Now we know that this applies in the LGBTQ community. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, research indicates that beginning as early as age 12, a disproportionately high number of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are at higher risk for an eating disorder than their heterosexual counterparts.

Although studies are an excellent way to confirm a hypothesis, those in the behavioral health world already figured this was the case.

Heterosexual females are often ashamed of what they “aren’t.” Conversely, females with an alternate sexual orientation are often ashamed of what they “are.” They belong to a class of people who have historically been highly ostracized and condemned by their families, religious institutions, even political parties for who they love. And, this is often in addition to the normal burdens of being female such as perfectionism, peer pressure, appearance obsession and more.

The American culture has made great strides in recent decades in terms of acceptance of gay and bisexual people, as witnessed by the creation of LGBTQ History Month. This has significantly reduced the level of shame. Millennials, those in their 20’s, are far more accepting of personal differences than the older generation.

Where we feel the greatest concern today is with transgendered Americans. These are individuals who already feel inherently “wrong.” In turn, many in the rest of the world add more judgement, intolerance and condemnation to their shame.

To become who they feel they are inside, they may elect to transition to the opposite gender. The word transition intrinsically means change, and whether it is a desired change or not, it is difficult. An eating disorder can be a new method to cope, or a behavior they can return to when the difficulty intensifies.

In our treatment program, with all residents, especially those in the LGBTQ community, empathy is the coin of the realm regarding shame-reduction. It must be evident in all that we do.

Compassion translates into everything from providing a welcome environment to using language and vernacular that is in no way judgmental. Each woman and girl deserves to feel safe, and above all, respected. She might not find this everywhere in the world, but she will find it at Timberline Knolls.