{via It Gets Better Project; helps to fund anti-bullying & suicide prevention efforts}

Today I’m pleased to present this guest post by writer Brittany Lyons. Below, Brittany sheds light on an important topic: the prevalence of body image issues and eating disorders in the gay community and what might be to blame.

Brittany aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from her PhD program to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.

When people think about body image or eating disorders, they usually imagine young, impressionable girls who come to hate their own bodies because they don’t match unrealistic advertisements, TV shows and movies. And, in fact, most eating disorder awareness and assistance programs are aimed at women.

However, a 2007 study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that women aren’t the only ones who need such programs, as gay and bisexual men may be just as much at risk (or even higher risk) for poor body image and  eating disorders as women. Thus, instead of just focusing on women, it is imperative that eating disorder programs focus on all groups.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and directed by Dr. Ilan H. Meyer, associate professor of clinical Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, and Dr. Matthew Feldman, of the National Development and Research Institute. They surveyed 516 New York City residents, including 126 straight men. The rest were gay or bisexual men, or women.

Their findings indicated that less than 5 percent of heterosexual men suffered from eating disorders of any kind, while more than 15 percent of gay or bisexual men had at some point in their life.

Surprisingly, this was not the case among the female sample: There were no differences between lesbian and bisexual women and heterosexual women. Of the all the lesbian and bisexual women, less than 10 percent had any eating or disorder or symptoms, while the figure was 8 percent in the heterosexual group—a negligible difference.

When questioned about the underlying cause of the high rates of eating disorders among gay men, Dr. Meyer hypothesized that the predominant values and norms propagated in the gay community promoted a very body-centric outlook. He went on to compare the primary drive to engage in eating disorders among gay men to those of heterosexual women: high societal expectations about physical appearance, and pressure from others to maintain an ideal body weight.

Yet a subsequent investigation found that even gay men who were in environments with a greater emphasis on body image (for example, those who regularly attended gyms aimed at the gay population) did not have a higher rate of eating disorders than those who were not.

Furthermore, the study also suggested that whether a gay man had close ties to the gay community in general, or participated in gay and bisexual organizations, did not make a significant difference in the prevalence of eating disorders.

Thus, something other than the values and norms of the gay population is the underlying cause of this distressing phenomenon. But if it’s nothing in the gay community itself, what it is that may make gay men more vulnerable?

The answer isn’t as clear-cut as one might think. While we don’t precisely know what causes eating disorders, we do know that they likely arise due to a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors (such as bullying or stigmatization during early formative years).

While children across all demographics face bullying in our schools, gay teenagers seem to catch the worst of it, as evidenced by all the testimonials coming to light under Seattle writer Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign—a movement started after seven gay teens in a single Minnesota district committed suicide back in 2010.

Bullying comes in many forms, but is always aimed at making the victim feel worthless, unattractive, or like an outcast, and invariably results in low self-esteem.

In the highly acclaimed documentary film titled “Do I Look Fat?” which focuses on the struggles of gay men with body obsessions and eating disorders, filmmaker Travis Matthews tackled the issue of low self-esteem. The men starring in the film had been put down for being who they are over a long period of time, and turned to food to deal with the pain. Doctors in the film confirmed that often these behaviors were deeply rooted in childhood trauma.

So what can be done to encourage high-self esteem and a positive body image?

What the documentary “Do I Look Fat?” set out to do:

  1. Raise awareness about eating disorders in the gay and bisexual community, and in men in general.  As Travis Matthews states in an article posted on the National Eating Disorders Association website, many of the men who felt emasculated by bullying refuse to admit to eating disorders later in life, because they believe it will further feminize them. He had uncovered an internalized phobia within the gay community itself, which encouraged men to overlook their other issues, which were “rampantly silenced behind rainbow pride stickers.”
  2. Give the gay and bisexual male population a language that helps them verbalize and understand their struggles in the light of being male and being gay or bisexual. Conventionally, eating disorders have been associated with women, which has resulted in many men feeling that it is a “woman’s problem”–not something they can have. By making them aware of how it can affect them, and teaching them how to talk about their insecurities in a healthy way, we can open the way for them to recover.
  3. Provide increased resources and support targeted specifically to their needs. While there are many resources available to women who want to get help with eating disorders, there are very few aimed specifically at gay men, or men in general. And this can discourage men from seeking help.

Eating disorders are still poorly understood, but there is help available for everyone. It’s important to work with a mental health professional that specializes in eating disorders. Additional options include attending group therapy sessions and joining a support group.

As more resources and support are made available, the men and women who struggle will be able to heal. They will also be able to heal from the inside out, and rebuild their self-esteem. Not only because they are receiving the care they need, but because of the support and acceptance of a society as a whole that cares about them.

Thanks, Brittany, for highlighting these often neglected but critical issues!

I’d also like to reiterate that if you’re struggling with body image issues or an eating disorder, please don’t hesitate to seek help. Make an appointment with your counseling center if you’re in college, or contact a mental health professional who specializes in EDs.

You can start by calling the information and referral helpline at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Or search with Psych Central’s therapist finder and check each therapist’s specialty. If there’s a university near you, find out what resources they offer to the community. You also might try seeking a referral from your doctor or a university mental health clinic.

And please know that with proper treatment, you will get better!