Eating Disorders in the Lesbian Community
Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, p. 19
As women continue to work towards changing societal standards and expectations of beauty, we often draw upon the acceptance and appreciation of natural shapes and sizes among one another for support and encouragement. Many would reason that the lesbian community would be a place where women could shed their inhibitions about appearance and live confidently, immune to mainstream definitions of beauty. However, like most women in North America, lesbians have also internalized the message that only certain body types are acceptable. The lesbian community has not escaped ‘sizeism’ and narrow body ideals, and the misconception that it has serves as a barrier for queer women who require services and treatment around disordered eating and related issues. If visibility remains an issue for the DE/ED (disordered eating/ eating disorder) community in general, it acts as a double barrier for women who might also experience isolation or rejection based on their sexuality.
There is very little research on the prevalence of eating disorders within the lesbian community, but anecdotal evidence suggests that DE/EDs occur as commonly among lesbian and bisexual women as they do among heterosexual women. Homophobia (irrational fear of and/or aversion to gays and lesbians) and heterosexism (the assumption that everyone is or should be heterosexual) discourage queer women from expressing their sexual identity and can lead to disordered eating behaviours as a means of coping. Women speak of distancing themselves from their lesbianism through bingeing and purging, or through compulsive overeating. The inability to completely express themselves stems from family and social pressure to live a heterosexual lifestyle. Activists believe that homophobia and the subsequent alienation it causes accounts for the high suicide rate among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth (LGBT). It should come as no surprise, then, to find a high frequency of disordered eating behaviours in the queer community; the lack of support and acceptance felt by LGBT individuals which can lead to suicide can also lead to using DE/ EDs as a coping strategy.
Many queer women have experienced difficulty finding the right kind of support around these issues. Most support groups do not address the issue of homophobia and therefore lesbian and bisexual women feel they are unable to raise the issue and are reluctant to seek out the treatment they need. This reluctance stems from a valid fear of negative reaction or discrimination by health professionals, who are not always comfortable having gay or lesbian patients and who might be unaware of the ways in which homophobic experiences can contribute to DE/ EDs. Personal feelings of intolerance can and often do influence how health professionals deal with patients that disclose their sexual orientation. Ironically, this perpetuates the feelings of shame and isolation that bisexual and lesbian women have used DE/EDs to shield themselves against in the first place.
Fortunately, we are now seeing an increase in awareness around DE/EDs in the queer community. OAmazons is an internet list group for lesbians with eating disorders (at www.lesbian.org/lesbian-lists/ oamazons.html), and there is an online forum found at amazingforums.com/forum1/ EDIBLEWOME/forum.html. Here in Vancouver, a support group focusing on issues around body image for queer women is being developed. The groups’ facilitators are volunteers with The Centre: A Community Centre Serving and Supporting Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered, Bisexual People and their Allies, who have participated in training workshops offered by ANAD (Awareness and Networking Around Disordered Eating). This collaboration between these two communities is an important step in breaking down social barriers, connecting women, and creating change in the accessibility of DE/ED support services.