Why media representation matters for LGBTQ youth struggling with eating disorders

the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Peter Hershey

Why media representation matters for LGBTQ youth struggling with eating disorders

March 3, 2018

Like so many other people this past month, I decided it was time to care a lot about winter sports. The Olympics enthralled me with the jumps, the spins, the high speed action, and support of the record number of openly queer athletes at the Winter Olympics. Millions of people all over the world got to see the faces, athletic feats, and open queerness of the LGBTQ athletes through the media.

This representation felt amazing. But for me, the most important moment was when The New York Times posted an interview with Adam Rippon discussing his eating disorder. The article confronted how eating disorders are an open secret in the skating community, and it seemed to me the article was also exploring the open secret of eating disorders within the queer community.

Rippon’s story gives us a much needed opportunity discuss this problem out in the open. His story is not the beginning of our conversation as a community and we cannot let it be the end. Mainstream media, including queer media, often jokes about the body-focused culture in the gay community: the constant pressures of what our bodies look like, spending all our free time at the gym, and how self-conscious we are about how others will perceive us. But this issue expands beyond just the gay male community.

LGBTQ people, especially youth, face certain challenges and experiences that make us more likely to develop eating disorders, like fear of social or family rejection, internalized negativity about our identities, and more. In fact, ​​​​​​studies show that high rates of eating disorders are comparable among queer men of all races and LGBTQ women have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. When 42% of all men who have eating disorders identify as gay it is important to talk about how we are addressing or possibly exacerbating this issue within our own community.

Most of the queer people I see represented in the media are white gay men whose bodies are seen as traditionally beautiful–they are thin, or muscular, or oftentimes both. These men became seen as the norm for our community and represent a nearly impossible standard to compare ourselves to.

The only queer people I saw growing up that were accepted in mainstream society were from the media, and those individuals were all thin. These people were viewed as ideal representations of LGBTQ life and I thought I also needed to be just as perfect. I thought, if I wasn’t thin I wasn’t the perfect gay person who could be accepted. It seemed being thin was the only thing that could make me worthy of being accepted, not only accepted by my straight friends, but also accepted by the gay community.

At the time of discovering my identity as queer, I was scared about how I would be perceived, so I tried to take care of the most visible thing that it seemed like I could control–my body. Growing up, I would barely eat because each time I ate it felt like I was letting myself down and that I would never be accepted.

Once I came out and felt more comfortable, many of these fears have diminished. I’m now able to eat meals somewhat regularly, and found that the queer community isn’t always as focused on bodies, and now as I’ve realized that I’m gray-asexual—someone who identifies between asexual and sexual—and I’m not particularly focused on other bodies either. Still, the hatred I once felt towards my body is harder to shake. I still fear that other people—whether LGBTQ or straight—will never be able to love or accept me because of my body.

Eating disorders are an LGBTQ issue that is affecting our whole community, and just like Adam Rippon, we need to talk about it, we need to remember to love each other, and we need to remind ourselves that we are perfect for who we are.

If you are looking to find support check out: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

To learn about Adam Rippon's fundraiser supporting LGBTQ youth click here.

Jason Gurevitch is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior at Colby College studying Computer Science and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Jason is passionate about providing inclusive sex-ed programming at his college and conducting research studies about the gray-asexual community.

the voice and vision of a new generation