Shedding Light on Eating Disorders in the LGBT Community

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Eating disorders only affect straight, white, teenage girls.

Well, that’s the stereotype that most people buy into, delaying diagnosis in males, older people, and the LGBT community.

“It’s definitely a misconception,” said Myra Hendley, a program therapist at the Eating Recovery Center of the Carolinas in Greenville, South Carolina.

“That’s not to say that body isn’t a huge part of eating disorder, but it could be anxiety driven or some kind of control mechanism … people don’t just say ‘Oh, I’d like to be skinnier’ and then develop anorexia. There’s something playing into that.”

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), LGBT people can have a predisposition to eating disorders because of the stress of not being accepted by their families and peers, fear of coming out, discrimination, and violence. In transgender people, it can be exacerbated with body image issues.

Unfortunately, not much research has been done on the prevalence of eating disorders in LGBT people. What is known is that LGBT people have a higher risk of binge-eating and purging (overeating followed by self-induced vomiting and other means of ridding their body of the food) than their straight peers. 

Also, gay and bisexual boys were “more likely to have fasted, vomited, or taken laxatives or diet pills to control their weight,” according to NEDA, and gay men were “seven times more likely to report binging and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males.”

“I’m not ever surprised when I see a man with an eating disorder and he’s gay,” Hendley said of her patients.

Known as a safe place to talk about their sexuality and gender identity, she said about half of her patients talk to her about their sexuality and 30 percent come out to her during sessions. In talking about the roots of their disorder, many say that it stemmed from their family not accepting them, followed by trauma. 

But not all places are LGBT friendly, as Megan Cuilla, who is genderqueer and uses their/they/them pronouns, discovered in their recovery process. Their anorexia began when they were 9 years old, but it wasn’t until they were 30 that they accepted it and sought treatment. At one center, therapists would walk into the room and proclaim, “hello ladies!” and refused to accept Cuilla’s pronouns as “they” and “them.”

“A lot of the time, we don’t get help because we’re worried there won’t be a safe place,” they said.

At the Eating Recovery Center of Washington, therapists helped them identify that they were genderqueer, a huge breakthrough in recovery, as well as the roots of the disorder. At 9, Cuilla got braces and remembers the pain of eating and the restrictions placed on them. A growing fear of food, coupled with emetophobia (a fear of vomiting) they lost enough weight to scare “everybody around me.”

Still, through their teens, Cuilla was never diagnosed and would adamantly deny they had a problem if someone brought it up. Finally, in 2012, they faced the fact that they had an eating disorder and went to therapy. There, they put a name to their feelings of being genderqueer and an avoidance of looking feminine. This was difficult when Cuilla started to put weight back on.

“When I started gaining weight, my body became stereotypically feminine and I struggled with that,” they said.

Like recovery of any kind, it didn’t happen overnight for Cuilla, and they went in and out until finally they were discharged in 2016. Today, they’ve been married to their husband for 10 years and are in a “happy, healthy place in my life now.”

Cuilla’s experience of not being diagnosed for years is a common experience. Because parents are more vigilant in finding eating disorders in young girls, it is identified early, especially today, whereas young boys are brought in when it’s they’re “a step away from the hospital,” Hendley said.

This was the case for Eric Dorsa, who remembers first having issues with food when he was only 8 years old, but it wasn’t until he was 18 that he confronted his eating disorder head-on and went to a recovery center.

“I grew up in a very middle class neighborhood, though there was a lot of dysfunction in my home and I grew up in a very religious and conservative home,” he said of growing up in San Antonio. “Having a boy such as myself often didn’t go very well … [I remember] feeling very aware that I was different, that something about me didn’t fit in with the other boys in my neighborhood and school. Especially in my home.”

The second of six children — five boys, “I grew up thinking, what’s wrong with me? Why am I not like my brothers? Why am I not like these other boys?”

Dorsa came out as gay at 18, then gave up athletic and academic college scholarships to go to the Eating Recovery Center in Texas. There, he learned anorexia and bulimia was a result of him trying to control his body in a chaotic world. He would binge on food when he was alone, and when his mother became concerned, she put him on a strict diet, which led to his anorexia. 

By 12, he experienced “medical consequences” and was hospitalized until he was a normal weight. At that time, he said, no one wanted to admit a boy had an eating disorder, nor was there even treatment available if it were identified. For two years, he was tube fed on and off.

During recovery, he came to terms with being gay, explored why he developed his eating disorder, and learned how to have a healthy relationship with food.

Ten years later, Dorsa said he is still in his recovery journey, but the biggest gift was “the ability to exhale and be open.” He has since gone to college and is working, as well as performs in drag and even did a TedX talk — a far cry from the young boy who wanted to hide from the world.

“It was very painful being in the eating disorder,” he said. “I felt like I was having to live a double life. I didn’t know how to live with the eating disorder and I didn’t know how to not live with the eating disorder.”


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