The bodies of transgender women and of women of color are over and over again told that their bodies are inherently less desirable, that the way that they perform their femininity is unsatisfactory, so it’s no wonder why many women in those communities are susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Not only are women of color held to the standard of thinness that white women are, but they are incapable of being able to perform the desired whiteness of our society’s beauty standards.
When we talk about who gets eating disorders and why, we have to think: what do eating disorders offer? They offer control; they offer the opportunity to earn love and acceptance through beauty. In a society that makes marginalized people feel unlovable and out of control of their own bodies, they can become incredibly susceptible to developing patterns of disordered eating. However, despite this, eating disorders are represented in medical studies, on television, and in literature as a white illness that mainly affects young girls in high school. This perception, however, is the result of psychologists and doctors largely doing research only on that portion of the population. Eating disorders target those who are vulnerable, so why do we as a society only see white teenage girls as vulnerable? Why are they the only group deemed oppressed by scrutiny and body policing, the only group in need of the help and treatment that thousands more also require? When the public possesses a general lack of understanding about one’s community, it is often accompanied by a lack of understanding about the illnesses to which one’s community is susceptible; this only serves to make those illnesses worse. One Latina woman talking about her experiences in group therapy said “The only thing we had in common was the eating disorder,” she says. “I felt so different in a room full of white girls. When we talked about eating disorders, I could relate. When we talked about home, I couldn’t.” Eating disorders already serve to deeply alienate those who suffer from them and being a member of a marginalized community can only compound the alienation one feels, which exacerbates the illness.
The bodies of transgender women and of women of color are over and over again told that their bodies are inherently less desirable, that the way that they perform their femininity is unsatisfactory, so it’s no wonder why many women in those communities are susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Not only are women of color held to the standard of thinness that white women are, but they are incapable of being able to perform the desired whiteness of our society’s beauty standards. If a woman of color is unable to achieve beauty stands associated with whiteness, then the perceived necessity to achieve what beauty standards they can is that much more intense.
Trans women are also held to this same standard of thinness, but there is extra pressure on them to pass as cis women, as well as to present as stereotypically beautiful for them for the validity of their gender to be given to them by society on a whole. But even then, the struggle is constant, that struggle presents itself in every interaction with a new person, every new group of people that perceive her puts her through the judgment that all women are put through, the question of whether or not she is “acceptable.” Is she worthy of respect due to her beauty? But transgender women have an extra layer of this scrutiny. Is she worthy of being referred to by her pronouns based on her appearance? Is she going to be clocked? Is she not only performing an acceptable level of femininity but performing the extreme level of femininity expected of transgender women if they hope to pass? One trans woman interviewed for a study on gender dysphoria and eating disorders said that “ I thought that because I was a woman I had to look good, to look more like a model. I just felt a lot of pressure to be thin all the time. I wanted to be smaller, more delicate. In my opinion, it is connected to being a woman.” Transgender men report similar phenomena, with a man in the same study saying “The background of that crazy weight loss was that my curves would disappear. They have always felt disgusting, for example, my hips and my breasts.” Thinness in AFAB (assigned female at birth) people can breed androgyny and can cause the diminishment secondary of sex characteristics such as breasts and curves.Transgender people of both genders are susceptible to developing an eating disorder, with significantly greater odds of ED diagnosis (4.62 times greater than cisgender heterosexual women who were the reference group). According to another study, 16 percent of transgender people say they have been diagnosed with an eating disorder just in the last year. In one study of 20 transgender people, 14 (70%) reported a history of disordered eating. Transgender people live in a society that refuses to see them as beautiful and expects them to pass perfectly if they are ever to be accepted. These factors lead many transgender people to develop an eating disorder, both to cope with this constant stress, and also in an effort to conform to beauty standards.
Eating disorders are considered by society, and even by doctors to be a white disease, and if you look at the statistics it can seem like they’re right, but a study found that doctors are actually less likely to diagnose black women with an eating disorder than white women. So, when you have a population of people who even doctors don’t consider candidates to have a disease, of course, the statistics will be skewed. Black women do not have a lower rate of developing eating disorders, but they do have a lower rate of being diagnosed with an eating disorder. In studies researching eating disorders in women of color, it was found that Asian and Latina girls were more dissatisfied with their bodies than white girls. Another study of more than 6,000 Native American girls found nearly half were working to lose weight. Black women are 50% more likely to develop bulimia.
Racism influences our perception of women of colors susceptibility to eating disorders, which leads us to not consider them at risk, which leads us to not research the rates of the occurrences of these illnesses, which leads to them not being diagnosed with these illnesses, which leads to them not being included in the statistics. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that we must consciously work to stop, just as we must consciously work to remove all aspects of racism from our society. Marginalization bleeds into all aspects of life, including the field of medicine.
It is also important to remember that body image is only one of the many contributing factors to the developing of an eating disorder. Trauma, stress, and depression are all important factors to talk about when discussing eating disorder sufferers, and marginalized populations are very likely to be exposed to traumatizing events. For example, Studies show that roughly 60 percent of people with bulimia have suffered sexual abuse. Stephanie Covington Armstrong is one of these women, who developed bulimia after being raped. She said that the trauma she endured led her to “thinking that something was wrong with me… that I wasn’t lovable… and that I was damaged,” The added stress that discrimination and violence add to the lives of marginalized people is referred to as “minority stress.”
Gay and bisexual men are also at risk for developing eating disorders. Gay men are thought to only represent 5% of the total male population but among men who have eating disorders, 42% identify as gay. In one study, gay and bisexual boys reported being significantly more likely to have fasted, vomited or taken laxatives or diet pills to control their weight in the last 30 days. One factor that may affect the higher rates of eating disorders among gay and bisexual men may be related to the fact that experiences of violence (gay bashing), contributing to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which research shows sharply increases vulnerability to an eating disorder.
Lesbian and bisexual women experience a similar phenomenon of developing an eating disorder due to minority stress. The minority stress model, when applied to LGB people refers to the myriad of problems that develop when a same-gender attracted person attempts to navigate our homophobic and biphobic society. Traumatic events such as being attacked or fired; everyday discrimination including microaggressions and slights; expectations of rejection regardless of actual discriminatory circumstances; the cognitive burden associated with negotiating outness; and the self-devaluation inherent to internalized homophobia are all aspects of life that may lead LGB people to developing an eating disorder to cope with these difficult experiences.
Writing this article was very difficult at times, mostly because there is so much contradictory, incomplete, and at times obviously false information about eating disorders in marginalized communities. Eating disorders are a bizarrely mysterious illness, despite being extremely prevalent in almost every part of the population. Being aware, educating oneself, and not being afraid to talk meaningfully about eating disorders in your community are all huge steps towards helping those with eating disorders feel safe and feel like they can begin the long journey towards recovery. Support, love, and education will always be some the most powerful tools we have to combat the epidemic of mental illness that runs rampant through marginalized communities and eating disorders are no exception. Be open, be non-judgmental, be educated, and we can all work together to help those in our communities who are suffering.