Eating disorders uniquely affect GLBT community

Elizabeth Cook

>EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is the fourth in a weeklong series that examines eating disorders at the University. Friday’s article focuses on resources for people with eating disorders.

The societal pressures to be thinner or look more attractive are everywhere.

And eating disorders affect the GLBT community, just like any other, said Anne Phibbs, the director of the University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Ally Programs Office.

“We’re like everyone else in the sense that we have problems,” she said.

Though eating disorders affect all people, the GLBT community suffers in unique ways due to issues with acceptance, types of available treatment and the lack of research done on the topic.

Global studies senior A.J. Faleck said he doesn’t suffer from an eating disorder, but sees a trend in the GLBT community of people wanting to be thinner when they come out about their sexual identity.

“In college, specifically,” he said, “you’re just coming out and that’s when physicality is very, very important.”

Eating disorders and body image concerns do not affect everyone in the GLBT community, but it is an important issue to discuss, Faleck said.

As a member of the GLBT community he said he’s witnessed friends go through unhealthy dieting and exercising patterns to be more physically appealing.

Faleck said he knew someone who was overweight and came out at the age of 18.

“He immediately started going on an exercise binge to lose a ton of weight before college,” he said.

People also carry a lot of assumptions about what gay men should look like, Faleck said.

The stereotypical belief, he said, is that gay men are skinny, but this stigma primarily affects the younger community.

“I feel that once (members of) GLBT community (are) in their 30s or 40s, they are just as comfortable with their appearance as anyone else,” he said.

Phibbs said eating disorders aren’t given much attention in the GLBT community because they’re seen as a sign of weakness.

Some GLBT people hide eating disorders because showing vulnerability is difficult when the person is a member of an oppressed community, she said.

Faleck said eating disorders are not discussed with much seriousness.

“I think it’s joked about,” he said. “I think it’s sort of satirized. It’s made to be talked about in passing.”

The causes of eating disorders in the GLBT community can be traced to the lack of acceptance many face, Phibbs said.

“The message you’re given every day is that you’re not OK because of who you fall in love with,” she said.

She said it’s difficult for a person to have healthy self-esteem when growing up in a homophobic world.

Faleck said people could develop an eating disorder because it’s something they can control, especially if they feel shortcomings in their appearance.

“You can’t control how tall you are or how short you are,” he said. “But you can control your weight, to some extent.”

Going to a treatment facility can also be a challenge for a member of the GLBT community, Phibbs said.

“The stigma around our community makes it that much harder to come out,” she said.

If sexual orientation isn’t addressed in therapy, treatment could be ineffective and the disorder might not be cured, Phibbs said.

Sexual identity is also an issue in many centers and group settings, she said.

For example, the majority of eating disorder groups are filled with women and this could make a member of the GLBT community feel uncomfortable sharing and expressing concerns, Phibbs said.

Fear can cause more silence and less help with an eating disorder, Phibbs said.

“It can keep you in because you’re worried people are going to push you,” she said.

Some research has been done on eating disorders in the GLBT community, but not enough, said University pediatrics professor Gary Remafedi.

“The information that is available is sparse and conflicting,” he said.

Gregory Fedio, the care manager at the Eating Disorder Institute at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, said that even though the disorder affects all ages, sexes and sexual identities, it’s normally considered a women’s issue.

Fedio said they do treat gay men and women at the clinic, but their treatments aren’t different from other those of other patients.

Studies suggest a similarity in eating disorders between heterosexual women and homosexual men, Remafedi said.

That’s because gay men and straight women often try to transform themselves into what they think a man would find appealing, he said.

Advertisements and media also add to the problem, Phibbs said, because of the “heightened standard of beauty” that is prevalent.

Remafedi said advertisements are much more likely to affect a gay man’s perception of beauty.

“Gay men are much more likely to strive to look like media images than heterosexual men,” he said.

Phibbs said men are more objectified in advertising than in the past.

Suddenly, a man needs to have a “six-pack” and big biceps to be attractive, she said. It’s these “unobtainable standards of beauty,” and trying to be the “right kind of man,” that fuel eating disorders.

Faleck said that in the GLBT community, how people look is more important than how they attained the looks.

“I think they reinforce ‘the ends justifying the means,’ ” he said. “Whether you ran 10 miles or whether you haven’t eaten in 10 days, whatever, you look good, so there you go.”

Phibbs said it’s possible to change these perceptions of what is beautiful, but it will take an effort from everyone to realize a person’s physical image is not the most important attribute.

“And we as a community need to work against those standards,” she said.