Surfacing After Silence

Life. After.

Gender Identity and Eating Disorders

Someone left me a comment on my Topics page about sexual identity:

Sexual orientation. I’d like to know if you think it and eating disorders are linked. I’ve come across a few people struggling with both – and I have yet to find decent information about it.

To put it out there, I am bisexual.  I think I knew this from the time I was in Junior High/High School, but where I grew up, people rarely used the words gay, lesbian, or homosexual, so of course trans or bisexual were never talked about.

As for me, I’d say that my eating disorder definitely affected my sexual orientation or, should I say, affected the degree to which I let myself experience that orientation.  Because of the childhood trauma, there was a significant period of time where I would not allow myself to look at men in any type of sexual way or even say whether or not a certain man was attractive.  That threatened my own feeling of safety.  As I recovered, I did more work in this area, and explored my feelings for the opposite sex more.  Healed them more.  I still think I lean more towards the female in terms of attraction, and I know I feel less threatened if a female is attracted to me than if a male is attracted to me.

I do believe that eating disorders can affect how an individual views his or her sexuality or comes to terms with it.  Especially for females, a significant reason some females maintain the asexual frame is to avoid attracting sexual attention and to avoid sexual interaction or intimacy.  I don’t really think of this in term of the stereotypical “eating disorder patients are just afraid to grow up” belief, but I do think that sexuality-which tends to be more of an “adult thing”-scares of a lot of us with eating disorders.  It’s a phase of maturing that we can’t control, except by denying it completely.

As for gender identity, people struggling with gender identity issues have to approach this from so many different angles–body image and sexual attraction being only two of them.  I think eating disorders complicate this process of self-discovery, as eating disorders complicate everything in an individual’s life.

The old belief was that eating disorders affected white, middle-to-upper class females, generally in their teens and early twenties.  I’ve been hospitalized with patients as young as 12 and as old as 60.  Men and Women.  Gay and straight and bi.  I can’t say all ethnicities, but Christians (both Catholic and Protestant), Muslims, Jewish men and women, Palestinians, African Americans, Indians, and a whole bunch of others.  And I know that the eating disorder affected the way we identified ourselves within these groups, so I have no doubt that having an eating disorder affects how you identify yourself if you are also struggling with gender identity issues.


October 11, 2009 - Posted by | Body Image, Eating Disorders, identity, therapy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Eating disorders knows no race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religious creed, etc., Persons of color have been seen in treatment for eating disorder, though in smaller-much smaller-numbers. Shoot, at SPH there were at least three or four persons of color on that unit, and I am sure there have been more since time of my discharge, with even more at various other places. Yes, there is an affect on race/ethnicity (which are not one and the same)and other identifying characteristics of an individual, it is just that studies have been more in the area of Causcasion, middle class protestant women… Great post though.

    Comment by eatolicious | October 11, 2009 | Reply

    • If you look at the paragraph, I stated that “The old belief was that eating disorders affected white, middle-to-upper class females, generally in their teens and early twenties” and then I go on to say how I have seen that stereotype disproved in hospitals. I did not come out and directly state that “eating disorders know no race, sex, etc” because I thought my examples throughout were enough.

      Comment by surfacingaftersilence | October 11, 2009 | Reply

  2. Great post. I don’t know of any major studies that have been done regarding homosexualailty/bi-sexuality and eating disorders, but maybe there’s some out there I couldn’t find. Someone I was in treatment with was doing a paper on this topic and I tried to help find a few things to help. I found a few papers but not much else. I don’t know if it’s b/c it’s not a priority in the mental health community or if, as you said, eating disorders are seen among all classes, ethnicities and/or groups of people. Interesting.

    Comment by unknownperson | October 11, 2009 | Reply

    • This was awhile ago, but while I was presenting a paper at a conference in 2005, a psychologist in the audience did mention that they are seeing an increase in eating disorders in the gay and lesbian communities and that research was being published about it. I wish I had that citation for you, but I don’t. But there is work being done in the field. I think like a lot of issues, it’s that we’re just a step behind.

      Comment by surfacingaftersilence | October 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. Alexis- I always appreciate when you take time to write about the sexual aspect of eating disorders. That is the part I find hardest to discuss and the most difficult to face. I developed an eating disorder in part to prevent puberty. I remember very consciously thinking in 5th grade and maybe even in fourth that if I did not eat than I might be able to prevent myself from gaining the fat and curves and breasts that come along with puberty. To this day, 11 years later I hate to admit that is the main reason why I am scared to let go of ED besides the fact that I am petrified of who I will be without it. I never understood when girls in treatment would say things like “oh well the good thing is at least I can get my boobs back” THAT WAS ALWAYS THE ONE THING I tried to hide/shrink and WANTED TO go away. Sometimes this makes me feel hopeless because I feel so misunderstood and so messed up. I am 21 and I have never had a relationship. Yeah i had prom dates and homecoming dates and been on one or two days, but I get so grossed and freaked out when a guy thinks of me in any type of sexual way. Yes, I want to be seen as pretty and fun but I don’t want to be seen for my body. Maybe that is just the feminist in me, but why can’t guys think of the person first and sex second…maybe they do….Clearly I am the problem, not them. Words of advice lol?

    Comment by Jessica | October 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Jessica, I don’t think it’s you that’s the problem and not them. I don’t think you can blame anyone. I do think a lot of guys at your age tend to think about sex more than women your age. I wasn’t interested when I was 21. And, I think that’s actually pretty common, but a lot of women won’t admit to it for fear of being “abnormal.”
      My advice is that you need to get comfortable in your skin–curves and female shape and all. When you can do that, without thinking about the other sex, you’ll be able to start allowing the idea of intimacy with someone else to settle in. Don’t rush it. It’s not worth rushing. Take your time, because you want this to be right, and if you do it because you think you have to, you’ll end up with shame and guilt and that just plain old sucks.

      Comment by surfacingaftersilence | October 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Jessica, I soooo relate to your story. I have no desire to reclaim boobs or anything that would make me a “sexual object” to men. That is part of the reason I keep going back and forth with my eating problem (I refrain from using the word disorder, as I find it to be too clinical for my taste–stigmatizing as well). It makes perfect sense to want to keep sexual-femaleness at bay when males are so obnoxiously trained to oodle over it. This is the gender-washing of our brains! Keeping the body pre-pubescent is a big obsession for me–came out after having had so many traumatic sexual experiences with men and even a few women. Power to you and yourself, I wish you well. 🙂 Sex and body are weird. We’re just humans given these crazy things, right…lol

      Comment by Brandy | January 27, 2012 | Reply

  4. Great thoughts, thanks for sharing ideas. I am greatly interested as I identify as a bisexual (recovering eating plagued-soul) that is still grappling with gender identity and body-nurturance. I’ve noticed when I feel more in touch with one, it usually affects the other. Perhaps this is just because sexuality and food are so interrelated…However, at present eating problems are on the rise–as is the growing acceptance/visibility of gender-queer populations (in some areas…).
    Currently trying to scrape up some research on the matter. If you’d like to bounce some ideas off of each other for research and brainstorming, my email’s I’d love to coordinate and see what kind of stuff we can come up with. This is an untapped area of research I’m eager to dig into.

    Comment by Brandy | January 27, 2012 | Reply

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