Prevalence of Eating Disorders Among Gender Nonconforming Individuals

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When it comes to eating disorders, it’s important to know who is most at risk for struggling with one. There’s a wide variety of things that can increase the chances that someone develops an eating disorder.

What if gender identity was one of these factors? Before we get there, let’s talk a little about what gender identity is.

What is Gender Identity?

Gender identity is someone’s own understanding about what gender they are. Whether they identify as a boy, girl, or neither—this is what we mean by gender identity. Gender identity is different than sexual orientation.

Nonbinary people have existed throughout human history. While there has been more talk about it in the last several years, it’s not a trend or a phase that someone goes through.

There’s a wide range of gender identities that someone could identify with. “Nonbinary” is an umbrella term that is given to a community of people who either don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or their gender doesn’t fit under male or female.

Are Nonbinary People More at Risk for Eating Disorders than Cisgender People

Yes! Research shows us that nonbinary people are more likely to struggle with disordered eating than cisgendered people [1]. Here are some stats about this:

  • In a study of college students, transgender people are four times more likely to struggle with anorexia or bulimia compared to their cisgender peers
  • Compared to cisgendered students, transgender youth are two times more likely to struggle with other eating disorder symptoms, like purging [2]
  • 7.4% of nonbinary people were found to struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their life. Among cisgendered people, females have a 0.9-1.5% chance and males have a 0.3-0.5% chance of struggling with an eating disorder. Essentially, nonbinary people are about 6-7% more likely to deal with these mental illnesses! [1]

It might seem confusing that gender identity can be linked with disordered eating. Keep reading to find out why!

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How are Gender Identity and Eating Disorders Linked?

Just like there are so many things that contribute to a person’s identity, there are so many factors that influence someone’s eating disorder. For example, it could be a combination of genetic factors, unresolved anxiety or depression, or in response to toxic beauty standards— just to name a few!

Nonbinary individuals could have all of these factors, too. However, research shows that there are other pieces to the puzzle for these folks. To really understand someone, we have to consider all the different things that make them who they are.

When looking at the link between gender identity and eating disorders, it’s important to consider cultural influences. We are all influenced by the culture we grow up in. For minorities, some aspects of American culture can be damaging.

If you guessed that nonbinary folx are a minority, then you guessed right! The stigma and prejudice that exists towards nonbinary people can be a huge stressor for this community.

Stigma and prejudice can lead to discrimination and other mental health stressors. Here are some reasons for this:

  • Gender nonconforming or transgendered individuals are at increased for being victims of violence
  • Fear of rejection or experiencing rejection from family, friends, or peers due to gender identity
  • Low self-esteem from absorbing negative beliefs about their gender identity
  • Negative body image due to not meeting gender-based beauty standards
  • Lack of access to affirming healthcare
  • Lack of adequate healthcare
  • Anxiety or depression due to lack of access to transgender affirming spaces [2].

What About Gender & Beauty Standards?

If you’re wondering about the differences between transgender people who identify as female or who were born female, you’re on to something! A study in 2018 was one of the first studies to look at differences in prevalence of eating disorders among nonbinary people.

Individuals who were assigned female at birth but who are gender nonconforming or transgender were more likely to struggle with eating disorders than nonbinary people who were assigned male at birth [1].

How to Support Nonbinary People With Eating Disorders

Here are three ideas for how to support nonbinary people who are dealing with an eating disorder:

  1. Show Respect: This is a no-brainer, but it’s really important! Demonstrating respect for a nonbinary person goes beyond being nice, but also means using their correct pronouns or the name they tell you to use. If you aren’t sure about their pronouns, you can ask them. Being respectful also means getting to know who they are as a whole person outside of their gender identity.
  2. Make Treatment A Safe Space: If you are a healthcare professional, take a look at your personal approach to patients or the company culture as a whole. Are there areas for improvement? Say something! If you aren’t sure where to start, you could request a training from a transgender affirming professional.
  3. More Research: This is a tip for eating disorder professionals or researchers. There needs to be more research about eating disorders among gender nonconforming individuals and transgender people. Part of this research needs to include differences among the subgroups, such as in eating disorders in transwomen compared to transmen .

There’s a lot we can do to support these people in our communities. Let’s keep making progress so that everyone can experience optimal physical and mental health.


Resources:

[1] Diemer, E.W., White Hughto, J.M., Gordon, A.R., Guss, C., Bryn Austin, S., & Reisner, S.L. (2018). Beyond the binary: Differences in eating disorder prevalence by gender identity in a transgender sample. Transgender Health, 3(1), 17-23.

[2] Gordon, A.R. (2017). Shining a light on gender identity and eating disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/shining-a-light-on-gender-identity-and-eating-disorders

[3] National Eating Disorders Association (2021). Eating disorders in the LGBTQ+ population. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/general-information/lgbtq


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EDS Woman Counselor - 468x60At Eating Disorder Solutions, compassion is at the root of everything we do. We understand that eating disorders are complex, deeply rooted mental health and medical conditions which require personalized treatment for a successful recovery. By integrating behavioral health modalities and clinical interventions, we endeavor to address disordered eating at its source.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on July 19, 2021. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on July 19, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC