Eating disorders are often perceived as not being very common in the minority and LGBTQ+ communities worldwide. The reason for this perception is not the absence of eating disorders among these populations, but rather due to the disproportionate treatment of the problem amongst these individuals.

In our contemporary world, many of us continue to have a stereotypical idea of eating disorders as an issue faced predominantly by young female Caucasians belonging to the middle to upper socio-economic classes. However, it must be remembered that eating disorders can affect any of us regardless of our age, gender, race, background, or socio-economic status. Fortunately, a growing awareness of eating disorders and their origins are ensuring that these stereotypes are broken down slowly but surely.

In this blog post, we question, make visible and collapse the uneven representation of eating disorders in minority and LGBTQ+ communities, and take a look at the current quality of mental health support available to individuals within these populations – particularly within the context of eating disorders.

Are Eating Disorders Biased?

Eating disorders are severe mental disorders. There are several factors that are believed to predispose individuals to eating disorders, including one’s genetic predisposition, environmental stressors, neurobiology, social stressors, and past traumas, just to name a few.

As we’ve already established, no one is immune to developing an eating disorder, and like most mental illnesses, does not discriminate based on age, race, sexual orientation, or any other personal markers. The disorders affect people irrespective of their biographical or geographic characteristics. Eating disorders have been identified worldwide, amongst minority groups in as much as they’ve been identified in non-minority populations.

What Is The Problem?

The problem remains that there is an underrepresentation of eating disorders in the minority and LGBTQ+ communities. Therefore, people of colour and individuals from the trans or queer communities have difficulty accessing the right mental health services, including both diagnosis and treatment. To make matters more complex, there remains a pressing need for inclusivity within the context of mental health interventions.

While awareness of eating disorders has improved in first world countries, there are still misconceptions around the types of people who might be expected to develop an eating disorder. As a result, eating disorders in men, people of colour, and individuals in the LGBTQ+ community are often not identified and remain under the radar. This puts such individuals at risk of facing greater barriers to professional help and care.

What’s worth noting here is that people of colour and individuals in the LGBTQ+ community face unique challenges that may put them at high risk for developing an eating disorder, while the representation of the mental wellbeing services they gain access to is usually not sufficient nor up to standard.

What Does the Data Say?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, research shows that LGBTQ+ teenagers are at comparatively higher risk of eating disorders than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Statistics also show that African American and Hispanic teenagers have a higher prevalence of unhealthy eating patterns compared to their Caucasian counterparts. But it doesn’t quite end there. We also know that:

  • African American teenagers are 50% more prone to bulimic behaviours than Caucasian teenagers
  • Doctors are less likely to ask about eating disorder symptoms when consulting with members of minority and LGBTQ+ communities, even when they have disclosed their weight and diet concerns
  • Studies have demonstrated that Asian, Black, Hispanic and Caucasian youth all reported attempting to lose weight at similar rates
  • Researchers found that Hispanic adolescents were significantly more likely to have bulimia nervosa than their non-Hispanic peers
  • Black and Hispanic women were found to have elevated risks for developing binge eating disorder

We believe that everyone should have equal access to quality mental health services. If you or someone you love are living with an eating disorder, there is help here at Healingclouds.

Eating Disorders in The LGBTQ+  Communities

LGBTQ+ individuals experience unique stressors that may contribute to the development of eating disorders.

As one article put it, “Research shows that, beginning as early as 12, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens may be at higher risk of binge-eating and purging than heterosexual peers.”

Most importantly, we need to be aware that eating disorders are about more than just food. In psychological terms, an eating disorder may represent deep-seated fears, anxieties, traumas, and phobias, amongst other things.

Potential factors that play a role in causing eating disorders-

  • Rejection from family, friends, and/or peers
  • Unfortunate incidents of mental and/or physical violence
  • Internalised negative thoughts and belief systems about oneself
  • Discrimination based on sexual preferences
  • Biases and bullying based on one’s gender identity
  • The dissonance between biological sex and gender identification
  • Inability to meet body image ideals in unfamiliar cultural contexts
  • Inability to fit into social brackets, roles, and expectations portrayed by the media

Lack of Awareness Among Mental Healthcare Providers

The truth can often be a hard pill to swallow. Unfortunately, the stereotypes surrounding eating disorders that prevail in our modern day societies affect the perceptions of healthcare providers too. This is compounded by the fact that there is a concerning lack of mental health professionals who specialise in mental health interventions amongst members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As a result, people from these minority groups don’t always get the same quality of healthcare services as their non-minority counterparts. It’s therefore undeniable that there is a pressing need to foster LGBTQ+ friendly environments within the field of mental health, where these individuals can receive well-informed interventions characterised by compassionate care and support.

In conclusion, we as a society, and we as healers, need to challenge current stereotypes that cause us to view eating disorders and other mental illnesses through a oftentimes biased lens. It begins with embracing these issues with an air of open-mindedness and eliminating assumptions in favour of ongoing research and exploration. Through these efforts we can promote more competent practices to match the needs of unrepresented communities.