Eating disorders aren't just an issue for straight, White girls: ED's across race/ethnicity & gender
by Allison Cabana
Once upon a time, I was a 15-year-old queer brown girl with an eating disorder. I wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last, but perhaps my experience is a more common one than people think. Let me back up for a second.
In my ninth grade health class, we watched a particularly memorable made-for-TV movie: The Best Little Girl In The World (1981). I may not remember everything from health class, but I definitely remember this movie and how it made me think about eating disorders. The movie—classic that it is—is about a teenage girl who, despite being “the best little girl in the world,” develops an eating disorder in order to cope with the pressures and troubles of her life. Casey, the protagonist in the movie, is a white, heterosexual, “conventionally feminine,” girl who is a student in good standing in her high school. She cheerleads; she dances; she gets all the answers correct on tests. She also has an eating disorder. The movie was pretty stereotypical about who was supposed to, or even allowed to, have eating disorders (and then get help for them). From watching the movie, it seemed to me that only cisgender, white, feminine girls had eating disorders—and that all girls were heterosexual. I didn’t fit the stereotype, but that certainly didn’t stop me from having an eating disorder.
As people, we’re complex. We identify with different races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and social classes, among many other social categories. A person’s gender identity is the gender they identify with. Sometimes a person’s gender identity matches the gender that they were assigned at birth – these people are referred to as cisgender people. Sometimes a person’s gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth – these people are referred to as transgender people. And some people prefer not to identify as men or women at all, and these people are sometimes referred to as genderqueer or non-binary (for more information, check out this helpful resource). So, with all this awesome variation among people, wouldn’t it make sense that we all could be susceptible to disordered eating?
Before we dive in a little deeper, I want to take a minute here to be very, very clear—I am in no way advocating for eating disorders or disordered eating. Eating disorders are persistent health conditions that center on damaging food consumption habits. While related, disordered eating is not always diagnosed, but it also has to do with harmful relationships to food. In this blog, while I do not advocate eating disorders or disordered eating, I do want to examine whether we are fully supporting all of the people who may struggle with this. As a queer, brown young woman, I have a hunch that people from all sorts of different and/or overlapping groups do have, or have had, or sometimes have and sometimes don’t have, disordered eating or eating disorders. But is there actually any research out there about eating disorders among queer or trans people? Am I making this up?
Apparently, I’m not. A group of researchers had an inkling that the stereotypes about eating disorders didn’t encompass everybody affected, and they set out to prove it. In their study, Elizabeth Diemer and her colleagues asked college students across the United States to fill out a survey that asked questions about their gender identity, sexual orientation, eating disorder diagnoses, and disordered eating behavior. Their study was different from past studies in its high number of participants who identified themselves as non-straight (also referred to in research as sexual minority) and transgender individuals. Not only does this mean that these people were included in the study about eating disorders, but by also including straight and/or cisgender girls and boys, they were able to make some comparisons. What Diemer and her colleagues really wanted to know was how often sexual minority and transgender people experience eating disorders compared to their straight and cisgender peers.
What did they find? Just as I thought, their study suggests that eating disorders do affect people across all different identities. The team of researchers report that transgender and sexual minority college students have just as high rates of disordered eating as their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. Of course, this doesn’t mean that cisgender and heterosexual people don’t also experience disordered eating, but it does mean that we can’t forget that eating disorders—thought for a long time to only affect white, straight, cisgender, teenage girls—can and do affect us all.
I’ve been thinking about what this research study means to me now, and what it might have meant for me as a teenager—especially as a teenage girl who was brown and queer. What would I have given at that age to know that I was not alone? To know that my struggle was just as real as the struggle straight, cisgender, white “best little girls in the world” faced? Sometimes, I think we underestimate how important it is to make a problem visible. I watched that movie in my health class and the stereotypical representation of eating disorders I saw made me feel like my own experience wasn’t quite true—even though it absolutely was (and is). This study is so important because it shows the world that eating disorders and disordered eating are problems faced by all sorts of people. We can’t ignore it anymore. And I must admit, I’m already dreaming about the new research questions this study brings up. For example, do transgender and genderqueer people experience eating disorders for the same reasons as cisgender people? How and why people are affected by eating disorders at such high rates are important questions that future research (and maybe even us as future researchers!) can and should start investigating. But I think today, one thing we can do is to make sure that we recognize the struggles that we all might face, and to support all of our peers in recovery. Because no one deserves to feel invisible.
 Diemer, E. W., Grant, J. D., Munn-Chernoff, M.A., Patterson, D.A., Duncan, A. E. (2015). Gender identity, sexual orientation, and eating-related pathology in a national sample of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 57, 144-149.