CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information and discussion about eating disorders which may be triggering to those affected.
When you think of eating disorders, it’s not common to associate them with men. Maybe it’s due to the way they are portrayed in pop culture such as in the Netflix show ‘To The Bone’ or Blair Waldorf’s storyline in ‘Gossip Girl’. We think of young women, struggling with body image, struggling to cope with society’s beauty standards, reacting to all the pressures of being a young woman. What we rarely (if ever) get to see, is what it’s like for men, particularly for queer men.
While it might not be a topic society highlights, around 1 in 3 people with an eating disorder are male (source). There is a strong stigma around men and eating disorders that often leads to them not seeking help. Eating disorders are not gendered. All people struggle with body image. All people can struggle with body satisfaction.
There is pressure on people to look a certain way, young people especially. The LGBTQIA+ community is not immune to this pressure. In fact, the queer community is at a higher risk of developing eating disorders. Young gay, lesbian and bisexual teens are at higher risk of binge-eating and purging compared to heterosexual people in the same age group (source). Among men who have been diagnosed with eating disorders in America, 42% identified as gay (source).
LGBTQIA+ people are at higher risk for mental illnesses (including depression, anxiety, substance abuse) compared to heterosexuals, and it is quite common for people to experience more than one mental illness at the same time (source). There are a lot of factors that can add to distress or trauma and lead to the development of an eating disorder in queer people. This can be the discrimination or bullying because of one’s sexuality or gender identity, fear of rejection by people close to them, exposure to violence or trauma, and the mismatch between biological sex and gender identity (known as gender dysphoria) (source).
A large cultural element that contributes to the higher incidence of eating disorders in queer men is the societal ideals surrounding body image.
Part of this culture stems from the gay dating app, Grindr. While dating apps are inherently superficial, this app has seen a negative body image culture develop. Users can write their preferences in their bio and you’ll often see the phrase “no fats, no femmes” on these bios (source).
This femme-shaming or femmephobia shows that toxic masculinity has not escaped the queer community, and certain ideals of masculinity are still performed. Dating app swipes and matches prefer a certain look - a masculine look - which means a muscular look. Add this to queer issues surrounding self-worth, shame, and seeking acceptance and the mix is volatile for queer men.
Something that goes hand in hand with eating disorders is body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is a mental illness where one perceives their body to look differently or more flawed than it is and to constantly feel anxious or shameful about certain parts of their body (source).
A type of BDD that is rising amongst young men is Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder. This is the preoccupation with being too lean and not “muscular” enough, often nicknamed “Reverse anorexia” or “Bigorexia” (source). This condition is separate from bodybuilding. The difference is the distorted body image and the amount of time consumed by thinking of one’s body, specifically in a negative way. Going to the gym is a healthy habit, but those with muscle dysmorphia spend an excessive amount of time exercising, have disordered eating i.e. diets or restrictive eating, use protein supplements excessively and even misuse steroids (source).
While it is typically thought to be common amongst heterosexual men, it is clear that queer men could also be suffering from muscle dysmorphic disorder. Regardless of sexual orientation, society is setting standards for what is masculine and what men “should” look like that people can’t meet. And they shouldn’t have to. There is no one definition of what being masculine is. There is no one singular body type that a man must have. If you identify as a man, then the body type that you have is the body type of a man.
Online, whether it’s Instagram or porn, you can be constantly bombarded with a certain muscular physique archetype and you may believe that that’s the norm. Living in a time where social media is so popular can really have a detrimental effect on a person’s self-image. People are constantly seeing bodies in media that aren’t like theirs or watch as others get criticised for not meeting unrealistic beauty standards.
We need to start recognising how we are adding to this body negativity culture and break the cycle. We need to do this for the physical and mental health of young people and help ease the pressure of growing up as a member of the queer community.
If you or those in your life are affected by eating disorders, you can contact professionals for help on these hotlines: