‘A toxic environment’: Eating disorders poison ‘entire’ Manchester LGBT community

Black, white or Asian, male, female or other, straight, gay or bi, skinny, fat or anything in between eating disorders and body image issues can affect every sinlge one of us.

The fact we have just had a whole week dedicated to raising awareness and tackling eating disorders shows just how prevalent they are.

While the existence of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, from February 22-28, and the rise in the number of discussions we see happening every day surrounding these issues are big steps in the right direction there is still a lot more to be done. 

And in the LGBT community, despite problems with body image being incredibly prevalent, the issue is largely overlooked, with specific research limited.

In an attempt to tackle the stigma around mental health and eating disorders, members of Manchester’s LGBT community gathered together last Friday. 

Andrew Gilliver, Community Involvement Manager at Manchester’s LGBT Foundation, explained how their research has shown the issue to be ‘disproportionate’ among LGBT people – 22% of people surveyed have suffered from an eating disorder.

“Research suggests that eating disorders disproportionately affect some LGBT people,” he told MM.

“There is much research still to be done on the relationships between sexuality, gender identity, body image and eating disorders.”

For many LGBT people the struggles of coming into the community can have a very negative impact on a person’s body image which can often contribute to the onset of eating disorders or mental health problems.

In the gay community alone many men report that they feel under pressure to conform to the ‘body beautiful’ images that the gay media portrays.

Not conforming to this stereotype can build feelings of isolation and low self-worth, leading many to find solace in food or to use under-eating as the one area of their lives that they can control – a method of self-punishment for not conforming to the perfectionist image the media creates.

Daniel, a 25-year-old gay man who has fought eating disorders since he was 15, said: “As a gay man, I have found that body image issues permeate our entire community.

“LGBT culture is full of pressures to conform to widely accepted standards dictated by the queer media which is harmful in its lack of realism and diversity when it comes to physical beauty.

“The lack of non-sexualised spaces in the LGBT community can often be a toxic environment that contributes to young people developing a sense of self-worth rooted in their attractiveness and other people’s validation which is extremely harmful.”

TOXIC ENVIRONMENT: The queer media’s portrayal of the ‘body beautiful’ contributes to the problem © Luis Munoz, via Flickr

It is easy to see why it is thought that eating disorders are more prevalent in the LGBT community.

Many feel pressured into basing their self-worth around their body image, combined with a fear of coming out, negative self-thoughts due to sexual orientation or gender identity not meeting societal ‘norms’, along with discrimination and bullying.

Yet, the problems caused by eating disorders are not helped through weak support networks for those affected.

It is thought that two thirds of gay and bisexual men suffering from eating disorders have not sought help from a healthcare professional.

The general lack of support is one major contribution, with some sufferers on the waiting list for up to a year before getting their first appointment.

On top of that, the feminine pronouns sometimes used on the questionnaires within local support clinics add to the feeling of disconnection from the help available, which is so clearly directed towards the stereotypical sufferer – young, white females.

Daniel said: “Until very recently eating disorders and body dysmorphia were overlooked by the general public as an issue only faced by white heterosexual women but this is absolutely not true.

“These issues are affecting the entire population.

“We are part of a community already plagued by a multitude of mental health issues and really need to focus in on the unique pitfalls of body image and eating disorders that queer people face.”

The stigma attached to mental health in the LGBT community, the lack of empathy from medical professionals about sexuality and gender identity and the ‘toxic’ idea of masculinity promoted by the media are blending together to create this potentially lethal dose of self-punishment.

The meeting held on Friday afternoon will hope to start the ball rolling in publicly exposing the need for the same level of acceptance around mental health and eating disorders to be established within both the straight, cisgender community and the LGBT community.

‘Je Suis Fatty Gay’, a columnist in ‘Attitude’ magazine and contributor to the meeting, said on Friday: “I’m relieved that the topic of body image and eating disorders is finally being given the space and voice it deserves.

“I hope this event can be about learning, sharing and forging new relationships with each other, to expose the myths and the truths behind one of the biggest taboos remaining in our community.”

While attitudes are beginning to change on these issues, it is still widely agreed that there is a very long way to go before the stigma and stereotypes are lifted on this topic, and appropriate, effective support can be offered to those who have fallen victim to these illnesses.

Image courtesy of Charlotte Astrid, via Flickr, with thanks

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