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Eating Disorders in the Transgender Community

Eating disorders are equal opportunity offenders; they affect individuals from all age groups, genders, ethnicities and lifestyles. Though none are exempt from eating disorders, it is also important to point out that some populations have a higher risk factor than others. One community that is at an especially high risk for eating disorders: The transgender community.

Sobering New Research

Such is the finding of new research from Washington University in St. Louis. This is not completely surprising, as previous studies have confirmed that others in the LGBT community have higher-than-normal odds for eating disorders. For example, gay and bi-sexual men have a significantly higher eating disorder risk, about as high as heterosexual women face. Until now, though, there has been very little research done on transgender individuals in particular. What the Washington University research finds is sobering: Transgender individuals face an even higher eating disorder risk than gay and bi-sexual men. According to the research, a staggering 16 percent of transgender folks say they have been diagnosed with an eating disorder just in the last year. “Transgender students also reported much higher usage rates of diet pills, 13.5 percent compared to 4.29 percent among cisgender heterosexual women,” a Think Progress article adds.

Why Do Transgender Individuals Struggle with Eating Disorders?

An obvious question in all of this is why? Why do those in the transgender community struggle with eating disorders at a higher rate than others? The answer, unsurprisingly, is a complex one. For one thing, there is the issue of body image. Like all of us, transgender individuals are bombarded with cultural messaging about the “ideal” body image. This messaging can take a toll on anyone, but it may be especially tough for transgender individuals to contend with. Think Progress notes that individuals with conflicted gender identity might use “eating behaviors to suppress or accentuate particular gendered features, such as weight loss for transgender women who may try to conform to feminine ideals of slimness and attractiveness.” There are other factors in play, as well, including stress and trauma, both of which are frequently linked to eating disorders. Certainly, members of the LGBT community are at high risk for stress and for trauma, due to ongoing social stigma, judgment and in some cases even bullying. The mere prospect of coming out can be traumatic for some, especially those who grow up in more oppressive environments. Eating disorders can develop as a means for coping with these difficult experiences.

Hope for those with Eating Disorders

It is also worth noting that transgender individuals may be more frequently diagnosed with eating disorders because they more frequently come in contact with mental health professionals. Even so, there are some sobering implications from this research. There is good news, as well, however, and it starts with this: There is always hope for healing and recovery, including for those who belong to the transgender community. If you know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, the first thing to do is love them. Remember that eating disorders are true mental illnesses—not choices, not moral failings. Encourage your friend or loved one by offering your compassion and pledging your ongoing support—without any judgment—while also inviting them to pursue treatment. With the right clinical intervention, it is possible to live a life of ongoing freedom and recovery. A final note: Be mindful of the very real risks that different communities face, including mental health risks, and remember to be empathetic even with those who may be different from you. Share this article on Facebook or Twitter.
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