Eating disorders are disorders of shame, isolation, and fear. All too frequently, eating disorders strip people of their voices and convince them that they don’t have the right to a voice in the first place. Queer women have been traditionally excluded from the conversation on eating disorders in research and in the media. As a queer woman in recovery from an eating disorder, feeling powerless and fearful of using my own voice is a known experience. Adding the cruelty of feeling doubly invisible in the eating disorder world, on top of being part of a marginalized and oppressed community, compounded my suffering and anxiety.
Last week, I logged onto a Twitter chat titled, “LGBT Community and Eating Disorders”. The chat was sponsored by a popular eating disorder recovery blog and a treatment center. I had written this in my calendar a few weeks ago because I was excited this was a conversation deemed worthy of having by people other than those of us in the LGBTQ community. The topic was relevant and important and the conversation is much needed.
I understand that speaking on this subject as an outsider to the community is challenging, and I have no doubt that the intentions behind this talk were positive. However, what resulted in the 15 minute question and answer chat was a kind of recreated asymmetry of an “us versus them” dichotomy. This is unfortunate because what is really needed in this domain of eating disorder recovery is promoting the value of pluralism and voice. Without overt pluralism, there’s the risk of homogenizing the LGBTQ population which is in fact full of diversity. It seems that the continued ignorance of the dominant discourse that I find myself experiencing can even continue when groups have good intentions and are trying to be active allies in LGBTQ advocacy.
I’m not going to go into the specific details of the discourse from the Twitter chat, because I realized that the frustration I was experiencing was just triggered by the chat. In reality, this is actually a much larger issue of how the LGBTQ community is represented in the eating disorder world (including in research, prevention, treatment, and awareness).
The larger issues here seem to be ones of visibility and voice.
It is essential that anyone who engages in dialogue about the LGBTQ community and eating disorders consider and evaluate how they include marginalized people in that dialogue and how they represent them. Providers, in particular, need to recognize the differences and be critical of their own roles and biases in the oppression of LGBTQ patients. There is a significant difference between developing a critically immersed dialogue with a deep willingness to speak with or to marginalized people in a reciprocal manner that seeks to inform one another, versus speaking for or on behalf of someone as their interlocutor. Or even better, let those who are marginalized speak for themselves.
Omitting LGBTQ voices from conversations that are about them and their lived experiences, exaggerates their invisibility. This becomes even more problematic when people of a perceived higher collective identity (e.g. heterosexual population) try to explain the experience of marginalized people without recognizing the specific nuances of their experiences or without providing adequate space for their voices. Queer women’s needs and identities will continue to be homogenized into the needs of the dominant discourse, thereby resulting in the perpetuation of detrimental stereotypes.
As the Twitter chat was going on, I felt myself getting increasingly uncomfortable. I kept asking myself, “How can there be conversation about eating disorders and the LGBTQ population without having a member of the LGBTQ member present?” [Note: a few weeks ago, I reached out to the director of the organization and asked if thirdwheelED could participate in the Twitter chat, but I did not hear a response].
It is very uncommon that queer women’s bodies and experiences are visible in the media, medical research, and advocacy efforts, therefore sending a very clear message that my illness, my identity, and therefore, I myself, am invisible.
To be oppressed into invisibility is an act of violence.
To be denied access to culturally relevant treatment is, too, an act of violence.
To lack representation in research other than that rooted in stereotypes is an act of violence.
Current research postulates that queer women may be less at risk of developing an eating disorder because they are less likely to seek men’s approval. Apparently (yes, sarcasm), social beauty standards exist as a means of only being sexually attracted to men (Share & Mintz, 2002). Here’s the mind blowing thing though: the oppression queer women face exists and is deeply rooted within the male patriarchy, and this is further complicated by trauma endured from cis-heterosexual men. So even though women who identify as queer might outwardly reject this beauty standard and may not be seeking out approval of cis-men, it is still something difficult to overcome. Again, this problematically homogenizes queer women. Queer women may actually seek out cis-men, trans men, or people who identify as male.
[Oh, and wait, footnote (if only I knew how to make a footnote in WordPress…): these unrealistic heteronormative, pernicious beauty standards aren’t really good for ANYONE, including, heterosexual females. This is anecdotal, but I think still worth mentioning: my friend, who identifies as cis-gendered and typically attracted to men is still horrified by such research because her eating disorder had very little to do with beauty standards. Her eating disorder, like many others, was a way for her to channel her anxiety and depression into being obsessed with the size of her body.]
This is especially true given that many queer women, including myself, have already felt at times that they exist in a culture where they don’t belong. So for some women, (subconsciously) choosing to adhere to the oppressive beauty standard by emulating the heteronormative ideal may provide temporary reprieve, albeit requiring a lack of authenticity. This forced invisibility has long lasting and devastating effects on queer women’s body image, self-acceptance, and shame.
In my own experience of being in my eating disorder, I took on the assumption (for a variety of reasons) that I was supposed to be invisible. Not only did I deserve not to be seen, but it was necessary to shrink, to hide, and to make myself as small as I could.
This doesn’t sound like it fits the well-known stereotype of a “butch lesbian” now, does it?
Well, also contributing to the issue of invisibility of queer women’s identities in the world of eating disorders is the fact that the existing research serves to perpetuate stereotypes and homogenize queer women. Researchers have proposed that “butch lesbians” may be less prone to eating disorders because they do not share the desires of the standards of feminine beauty espoused by heterosexual women (Feldman & Meyer, 2007).
Please. Reread that sentence. [insert: jaw drop]
This research’s focus on “butch lesbians” has erased many alternative queer identities and has sent the harmful message that women who do not fit this stereotype are invisible. To be a lesbian, is to be either “butch” or “femme” according to research standards. And depending on which binary you fall into, your risk of developing an eating disorder will be determined. It is presumed that queer women deemphasize physical appearance and so are shielded and protected from negative body image and therefore eating disorders.
As a result of this, not only do queer women feel the distress of not fitting into the heterosexual norm, but they also have difficulty reconciling that their identities are not recognized within psychological contexts. This thought process also homogenizes queer women through the lens of a heterosexist stereotype and prevents access to treatment. The result?
Let me get personal here: I am a queer woman who doesn’t necessarily identify as either “butch” or “femme”. Because of this, I have felt the burden of carrying the additional stigma and isolation in a community that is even struggling with the same illness as I am. Throughout the past fifteen years of battling my eating disorder, I subconsciously devalued my own experience and completely disregarded legitimate factors that motivated and maintained my eating disorder behaviors.
I tend to feel eclipsed by the heterosexual eating disorder community the most when it comes particularly to issues of body image. For me there has been a strong interplay between my sexual identity, my gender expression and trauma. Much of my efforts to make myself small have been rooted in the desire to desexualize and defeminize myself. Achieving a small body shape to me, meant not that I was male, but that I was neither male nor female, and thus a non-sexual being. It took a substantial amount of time for me to figure out if this desire was a result of my gender identity that I was too afraid to reveal, or a result of traumas? The conclusion? For now, it feels like a combination of both.
Additionally, I’ve never felt particularly feminine at any point in my life and since I’ve been in recovery, I’ve had a tremendous amount of difficulty finding clothes that satisfy my body dysmorphia (thanks, eating disorder) and my gender expression.
Another example: I’ve contemplated binding my chest in an attempt to satisfy my affinity towards a flat, less overtly feminine chest; however, due to my inability to wear anything remotely constricting because of body image issues and my eating disorder, I have yet to find a solution. These examples are just a few types of stressors that illustrate the multifaceted nature of the unique distress that the queer community or at least I face when it comes to body image and eating disorders. These examples are not ones that I’ve ever heard discussed in therapy groups (hence the need for more culturally relevant treatment for the queer community).
Not only is there a need for culturally relevant treatment in the LGBTQ population, but eating disorder treatment in general does not adequately discuss gender expression, identity, and sexuality and the intersection of the three in regards to self-identity. Regardless of how one self-identifies, our society is one that genders our bodies immediately based on certain presumed key characteristics (e.g. clothing, hair, shoes, jewelry, etc.). This experience can be stressful and make anyone question or fear how they feel in their bodies and how others perceive them.
These body image difficulties that I experience provide evidence that the aforementioned research is erroneous. The fact that the research relates eating disorders at all to achieving some sort of inherent beauty standard reinforces the false notion that eating disorders are psychologically driven by wanting to look a certain way, that they are issues of vanity, and about beauty (e.g. achieve the thin ideal). But, they are not. Eating disorders aren’t issues of vanity in the LGBTQ community or in people who identify as heterosexual and cis-gendered.
Eating disorders are actually psychologically rooted in a profound and painful sense of not being good enough, of being so inadequate at everything you do, of being lesser-than, of being undeserving and unworthy. All of this of course exists in the wake of genetic predisposition, life experience (e.g. trauma), and vulnerability. With that said, there is really no logical way to assume that any particular group of people is more or less immune to this illness.
We need to stop simplifying the development of eating disorders to an issue of social beauty standards. Not only is this inaccurate, but it is dismissive of many of the compounding experiences that queer women, including myself, have encountered (e.g. sexual abuse, trauma, classism, heterosexism, racism, etc.)
Let’s start a dialogue. Together. We have to address the compounding experiences, the unique stressors, and the nuances of experiences with sensitivity. To ensure successful and long term recovery, everyone deserves to feel affirmed and empowered in treatment.
There is an urgent need for people to offer space for marginalized voices in the eating disorder world. Try not to talk for us or about us. Try to compassionately learn from us, ask about our experiences, our opinions, our voices, our needs. Learning from us will be essential for improving health care that is accessible to the LGBTQ population, and will enable us to work together more symbiotically, rather than constantly resisting a harsh “us versus them” dichotomy.
In kind of an intentionally botched effort to speak only for myself, I feel confident that I, and many of my other LGBTQ marginalized folx, are creative and powerful and insightful and strong and knowledgeable. We know what we need for our healing. We are the experts of our own experiences and of our lives. So please encourage us to be those experts. Include us and listen to our voices.
In strength and healing,