Lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and queer people have long united using the acronym LGBTQ. Though their specific identities may differ, these groups share a common struggle for change that will benefit all involved. Sadly, members of this community share more than a struggle to attain equal rights. Body image issues and eating disorders impact LGBTQ people at disproportionate rates. Body dysmorphic disorder, in particular, impacts gay men at a rate much higher than their straight counterparts.
Before we delve into this topic, I want to attempt a disambiguation (as Wikipedia would say). I am not talking about gender dysphoria (GD), which is the incongruence someone can face when their internal experience of gender does not match the gender assigned to them at birth. Some, though not all transgender people, experience GD. Instead, I’m talking about body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) which is marked by an obsession with perceived flaws in one’s physical appearance such as muscular physique or skin blemishes. For a more detailed overview of the difference between gender dysphoria and body dysmorphic disorder, check out this thoughtful piece by a writer who is transgender.
While BDD may impact anyone, people in the LGBT community may be at a higher risk of facing this diagnosis. BDD can be life-altering, leading to social isolation, severe depression, and/or multiple unnecessary cosmetic surgeries. I’ve already talked here about the struggle of actor Reid Ewing, who is gay and suffers from BDD.
Some men with BDD experience a specific type called muscle dysmorphia, in which they believe their body is not muscular or lean enough. Muscle dysmorphia can lead to illegal drug use to enhance muscle tone. In 2014, a study found that steroid use is four times higher among gay and bi teen boys compared to straight boys.
So what is causing these higher rates of BDD in the LGBTQ community? One part of the problem is the way the media shows idealized (and unrealistic) pictures of LGBTQ people. As writer Michael Abernathy observed, “[M]agazines aimed at gay men present retouched images of gym bunny models with washboard abs, glittering white teeth and coiffed hair.” Undoubtedly, these unattainable ideals about what someone “should” look like get internalized and, in some cases, contribute to the development of BDD.
Eating disorders (or ED) are different from BDD but they can occur together. We know that members of the LGBT community suffer from ED at disproportionately high rates. But culturally competent help is available. For the trans/gender-diverse, a wealth of knowledge and support is available through T-FFED which stands for Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders.
Though it can feel like an alphabet soup, these acronyms help us spread the word: devastating disorders like BDD and ED are impacting too many LGBTQ people. Yet, regardless of label or identity, we can all unite to work to reduce the barriers to treatment for people living with these challenges.