by Kendall Fitzpatrick
In various forms of media like television or magazines, it is apparent that being heterosexual is mainstream in American society. Most storylines for TV shows are written with straight characters. Advertisements in magazines sexualize products like perfume or clothing to attract the opposite sex. Magazines focus on dating tips on how to understand and date the opposite sex, completely discounting the population that may be reading their content identifies in the LGBT+ community. Despite the recent strides towards equality during the Obama administration, US society remains largely heteronormative. Identifying as LGBTQ+ in a heteronormative society can also be challenging because of religious, cultural, family, ethnic or other values.
But what happens when someone doesn’t follow society’s norms in terms of sexual or gender identity? A person usually experiences a lot of internal conflict, when discovering their identity. When this process is combined with a mental illness, such as an eating disorder, the combination can be deadly. On one hand, the person struggles with the eating disorder and the identity of being sick. On the other hand, they are searching in the dark for their true identity, outside of societal norms and their disorder.
A common phrase in English is “when one door closes, another one opens”. However, for someone considering opening up about their sexual or gender identity, it is tricky to say whether the next door that opens will lead to acceptance or isolation. Coming “out of the closet” is not as easy as it may seem when one has the baggage of an eating disorder to carry with them. There are many potential dangers individuals in the LGBT+ community may face when making the decision of whether to “come out” or not. There are fears of rejection of friends, family and even strangers for living life openly in their true identity. If a coming out process is taken poorly by family this puts the person at risk for having an unsafe home environment or, even worse, homelessness. In fact, according to the True Colors Fund, half of all LGBT+ teens get a negative reaction from their parents and more than 25% are thrown out of their homes. The abrupt shift in their living environment can cause many feelings of loss and abandonment. Furthermore, dealing with issues that may arise from homelessness can result in the development of mental illness. Consequently, having to now live on their own can default them to having little to no help in treating mental illness like an eating disorder.
As a person prepares for “coming out”, the eating disorder thrives on their confusion and internal chaos. The eating disorder may manifest by telling them that “no one will accept them for who they are” or even “if you can’t be open about your gender identity then I can help you control your body in other ways”. At this stage, the person may feel stuck in trying to understand who they are, while their disordered thoughts are screaming at them that their identity is their sickness.
During the period of internal self-discovery, an eating disorder feeds off of the self-doubt like a leech. When there is any sort of uncertainty, the eating disorder whispers that it has the “answers”. Eating disorders are an isolating disorder. They make those affected feel unable to talk with loved ones about big parts of their life like sexual or gender identity. The eating disorder makes them believe things like “you can’t share this with them or you’ll lose them”. Unfortunately, this often in itself leads to losing their loved ones due to isolating behaviors. As a result, the person starts believing the eating disorder suggestions regarding ways they can act to get others to accept them. Those ways include: acquiring a smaller waist, losing weight, “looking better”, and so on. But, when a person with an eating disorder gives into these conditions, they start to lose sight of whom they are even more.
Another vulnerable period the eating disorder can take advantage of is once a person has become confident enough to come out or have been unwillingly outed by another person. Coming out is the equivalent of pulling an arrow back and releasing it with eyes closed, hoping to hit a target. When a coming out process is positive, there is a sense of relief and the eating disorder potentially loses power because the person’s social network becomes stronger. On the other hand, if the arrow can miss the target, this offers the eating disorder opportunity to exploit a person’s vulnerability. All of the things the eating disorder had been telling the individual about them not being accepted due to their sexual or gender identity becomes a reality. The fear of rejection is validated.
A person may utilize eating disorder behaviors to cope with these intense emotions of betrayal. They may also start to believe their disordered thoughts even more and become convinced that the eating disorder will give them the body that everyone will accept. If they focus on their eating, exercising and other behaviors, there will be no time to deal with the pain of losing love and trust of those in their life. The eating disorder becomes a way the person can numb out these feelings and or thoughts related to this traumatic rejection.
Moreover, the eating disorder is something that claims it will never leave the person. This sense of dependability can influence a person to hold onto the disorder more strongly due to the stability the illness promises. Since this fear of abandonment is so common among those in the LGBT+ community an eating disorder can provide a sense of safety when those in their life may reject them.
As mentioned, youth can have a harder time coming out because it can jeopardize their home environment. But even if they remain with their parents, youth living with parents or family members, who reject the young person’s sexual or gender identity, can feel like home life is unbearable. Since they are forced to live with those, who are unaccepting, every day, it can make them feel alone. In these moments of ostracism, an eating disorder may pseudo-replace the social support they are lacking. It promises things to the individual that will never come. Unfortunately, though, it speaks lies; it promises comfort, but in actuality causes more pain and confusion about identity. The eating disorder provides the person with a sense of control over a living situation and opinions from others that are not in their control. When the home environment is unstable, the young person may seek a sense of safety and consistency from their illness.
It is so crucial that as a society we allow the individual to open the door when ready and welcome them with a warm hug, rather than a turned back. Remembering the person coming out may be walking hand in hand with an eating disorder as well. There needs to be an increase in the information offered by schools regarding eating disorders and also LGBTQ+ sex education. Allowing the students to feel accepted and safe while in school will only influence youth to be able to process their questioning identity more. If students can feel like identifying as LGBTQ+ is acceptable in society it will influence their peers to be aware and compassionate to the community. This in hopes will decrease the negative ideas about the LGBTQ+ community and possibly taking power away from the eating disorder.
To those who are coming out: make sure you have adequate supports and you come out when you feel ready. This can be a friend, family member, coach, teacher, parent, mentor, or medical professional. Coming out can be a delicate procedure. This requires you to be patient and gentle with the length of your journey. Self-love and acceptance is a key part to being able to live a life truly free as whom you are. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself because everyone else is already taken”.