Research shows that as many as 15 percent of gay, bi men have eating disorders, but most who do won’t seek treatment
Catherine Nordon | Contributing Writer
I have grown uncomfortably comfortable in the high rise lobby chair. Having spent months and months over the course of two years sitting in the same dull brown chair, I have claimed it as my own personal space.
Stuck here, more than an hour away from our small home town, I need something to call my own as I wait for my beautiful 18-year-old daughter to finish out her day at the Dallas outpatient eating disorder program.
As I pull my faded Converse shoes up into the chair, my eyes are drawn to the eating disorder recovery symbol that is tattooed on my wrist to serve as a constant reminder of the 29 years that I spent with an eating disorder, and where I want to stay.
There are 10 million individuals in this country that suffer from an eating disorder, and there is not a race, a group or a community of people that are protected from the disease.
And because eating disorders, specifically anorexia, have the highest morbidity rate of any psychiatric disease, 10 million is a frightening number.
It has almost become an urban legend that eating disorders are a “woman’s disease,” because gay men are affected by eating disorders at an alarmingly higher rate than any other group.
Brad Kennington, LMFT, L.P.C., is the executive director of Cedar Springs Austin, an eating disorder treatment center in west Austin. He believes that the gay culture — obsessed as it can be with youthfulness, the body and physical attractiveness — plays a critical role in the development of eating and body image issues with gay men.
“The body-focused, hyper-sexualized gay culture, which places a tremendous value on a guy’s looks, can certainly trigger body image and self-esteem issues that can then lead to an eating disorder,” Kennington says.
Kennington, who has specialized in treating male eating disorders for nearly 10 years, shared some interesting findings: According to a 2007 Harvard study, 25 percent of all anorexics and bulimics are male, and 40 percent of binge eaters are male.
In the general population, 5 to 7 percent of males are gay. Studies show that up to 42 percent of eating disordered males are gay, so gay men are disproportionally represented in the male eating disordered population.
Research also shows that 15 percent of gay and bisexual men have struggled with disordered eating.
Kennington explains how important the body can be in the gay community: “One’s body equals one’s identity. Having the so-called ‘perfect’ body also gives a guy status and power in the gay world.”
Kennington notes the vast difference in not only the actual numbers of people who seek treatment for their eating disorders, but the significantly lower number of men that will seek treatment.
“For men,” he says, “shame plays an incredible role in not wanting to seek treatment. The myth that eating disorders are a female problem helps keep men and boys who struggle with eating, over-exercising and body image locked in a closet of shame, not wanting to step out and ask for help.” There is a stigma associated with having an eating disorder, especially for males. But, Kennington stresses, “Eating disorders are not a female problem, they are a human problem.”
When struggling with the idea of seeking treatment, Kennington says all gay men need to have the courage to ask for help.
“In some ways, it is another ‘coming out’ process to admit to yourself and others that you have an eating disorder,” he says.
Kennington says he hopes that the perception of having an eating disorder changes and that individuals will come forward and seek the help and the peace that they so deserve. But for that to happen, there has to be a change, not only in society as a whole, but more specifically within the gay community: People must retrain themselves to have the desire to be the “most healthy” that they can be.
Eating disorders often co-exist with other addictions, like alcohol and drug abuse, which are like the “gateway drugs” that can lead into the development of eating disorders.
Depression and anxiety also play major roles not only in the foundation for an eating disorder, but in perpetuating the disease.
And if any of these struggles are left untreated, then all of these co-existing issues can make the eating disorder longer-lasting and significantly worse. Sometimes, one addiction replaces another, while at other times, all addictions can thrive together.
Discrimination — or at least, fear of discrimination — within hospital and treatment settings could be one factor that keeps gay men from seeking treatment for eating disorders.
But Jim Harris, Psy.D., the program manager for the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas Eating Disorder Program, promises that his eating disorder program is comfortable and familiar with working with gay clients.
Noting how important a life partner is to the recovery process, Harris says, “We encourage life partners to join our weekly multi-family group supporting recovery for their partner as they are a vital to the therapeutic process.”
Often, the individual struggling with an eating disorder won’t reach out for help on their own, leaving it up to family and friends to intervene.
Lara Pence, Psy.D. M.B.A., site director for The Renfrew Center in Dallas, says the question she is most often asked is how to approach a loved one who needs help with an eating disorder.
Pence says, “I think that is what really is important is that you approach the person out of concern and support [instead of] judgment. So often when someone has an eating disorder, they are not interested in hearing about what is wrong with them, but rather they need to know that someone is going to be there for them.”
Pence says that those trying to help a loved one with an eating disorder “tend to want to approach someone with the evidence of behaviors that they have used, like, ‘I have seen you do this.’
“But people are very protective of their eating disorder, and that approach doesn’t go very well,” she continues. “So it is more effective to approach the individual from the angle by saying something like, ‘I noticed that you feel sad to me,’ or ‘I have noticed that you aren’t yourself.’”
Pence says she believes that “the common thread in the gay community is that you meet a lot of people that are having an identity crisis and the struggle with coming out as gay, which although different, is similar to straight women with an eating disorder who aren’t comfortable with who they are.”
So a variety of issues come into play in treating eating disorders, especially among men. It is not an easy process.
But life is designed to be lived in full color, not in the black-and-ewhite world created by an eating disorder.
So if you or someone that you know is struggling, love yourself or your partner enough to find recovery. Take the first step and reach out for help.
• Cedar Springs Austin
4613 Bee Cave Road
Austin, Texas 78746
• Eating Disorder Program
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital
8200 Walnut Hill Lane
Dallas, Texas 75231
• The Renfrew Center
9400 N. Central Expressway, Ste. 150
Dallas, Texas 75231
• National Eating Disorders Association
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.