New research examines the relationship between sexuality and disordered eating symptoms, finding that it’s not as simple as straight or gay.
According to a study at Drexel University, young women who are either bisexual or unsure of their sexualities are more likely to struggle with eating disorders than lesbians or straight women. Although same-sex attraction was previously believed to protect heterosexual women from eating disorders, the new research suggests that lesbians are no more likely than straight women to acquire a disorder.
While the findings for women conflict with prior research, the study confirmed the results of previous findings that concluded straight men are less likely to develop eating disorders than gay or bisexual men.
"The results of this study suggests there may be notable differences in disordered eating symptoms across LGBQ persons," said lead author Annie Shearer, research assistant for Drexel University's Center for Family Intervention Science. "Given the severe physical and emotional repercussions of eating disorders, these findings underscore the need for primary care physicians to ask about both sexuality and disordered eating symptoms during routine visits.”
The study examined eating disorder symptoms and sexuality in adolescents and young adults from ten primary care sites in Pennsylvania. The researchers administered a Behavioral Health Screening, a web-based screening tool that assesses risk behaviors and psychiatric symptoms, to over 2,000 participants who were 14 to 24 years of age.
According to the press release, the participants were asked questions like, “how often do you think that you are fat even though some people say that you are skinny? How often do you try to control your weight by skipping meals? And, how often do you try to control your weight by making yourself throw up?”
The participants were also asked who they felt most attracted to: either males, females, both, or unsure. Additionally, they reported who they’d engaged in sexual activities with in the past: males, females, or both.
"While there is a lot of research indicating gay and bisexual men exhibit higher rates of eating disorders than heterosexual men, findings have been mixed with respect to women," said Shearer. "Moreover, bisexual and - to an even greater degree - questioning persons are often excluded from these studies.”
The study found that there were no significant differences in disordered eating scores between heterosexual women and lesbians, but women who reported being attracted to both sexes had significantly higher scores. According to the researchers, they were most surprised by the finding that females who were unsure about their sexuality reported the highest scores of all groups of women.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, there are a number of unique stressors that members of the LGBT community experience that can impact levels of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, such as coming out and harassment in their social spheres. These conditions are commonly co-occurring and increase the chance of developing an eating disorder.
Interestingly, NEDA also reported that feeling a sense of connectedness to the gay community was related to fewer eating disorders, suggesting that the feeling has some type of protective effect. Perhaps that provides an explanation for why women who were unsure of their sexuality scored the highest on the assessment for disordered eating symptoms. In a society that places so much pressure on sexuality, feeling lost or unsure of one’s identity could certainly lead to insecurities that might manifest themselves in unhealthy habits.
Guy S. Diamond, co-author of the study, director of the Couple and Family Doctoral Program, and director of the Center for Family Intervention Science, said, “This study highlights the need to increase sensitivity to the unique needs of sexual minority youth as a group and for the particular subgroups in that population.”
Many people around the world are still unaccepting of the LGBT community, so coping with the feeling of unacceptance presumably makes it more difficult to build a strong foundation for self-acceptance. While these issues likely contribute to the fact that bisexual and questioning women are the most likely to develop eating disorders, the bigger takeaway from the study is that there’s a need to specialize medical treatments and therapies so they account for all factors of identity.