Proud2Bme | Shining Light on Gender Nonconformity and Eating Disorders

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Shining Light on Gender Nonconformity and Eating Disorders

By Ash Thoms--When you hear “eating disorder,” many people still picture a young, emaciated, upper-class white female. There is a shift taking place, with men now receiving more attention and treatment for eating disorders, but there is still a gaping hole that needs to be addressed: gender nonconforming people who suffer from eating disorders.

Trigger warning: Descriptions of eating disordered behavior.

The definition of “gender nonconforming” is someone who has behavior or gender expression that does not match masculine or feminine gender norms. I happen to be a gender nonconforming person; I identify as genderqueer and use the pronouns they/them/theirs.

I wasn’t aware of this during my pre-adolescent age, as some people are; I learned about gender nonconformity when I was 17 and it just felt right—it made sense. But to other people, it didn’t, and I felt like I had to hide that part of who I am—both for the sake of other people, and to protect myself.  

I also happen to be a person who was diagnosed with an eating disorder at the age of 15. My eating disorder fed off of the need to hide my gender identity, saying that I was “wrong,” that if I could control the way my body looked—through manipulating food—then people would get it, then people would understand that I wasn’t female.

Throughout the last few years, I have discovered that I am not alone; others also struggle to express their need for acceptance of gender nonconformity. In a recent study from the Journal of Adolescent Health, gender nonconforming people reported the highest rates of treatment and diagnosis of eating disorders, as well as the highest rate of purging behaviors—which begs the question: why?

One hypothesis was that suppressing or accentuating gender features was a main point of these behaviors in gender nonconforming people. Another hypothesized reason for the high rate of eating disorders in this population is the stress of being in a stigmatized minority group.

The reality of oppression and misunderstanding led me to the feeling of being “wrong,” that I didn’t fit in and that I wasn’t normal. That’s just the thing—gender nonconforming people still aren’t considered normal, and they still aren’t expected to be present in the population in general.

Treatment for an eating disorder as a gender nonconforming person is also particularly challenging. Every admission and new outpatient visit since my gender identity discovery has been fraught with fear and apprehension.  

I go by a name that isn’t my legal name, and I had to explain that while filling out paperwork and doing medical forms and phone interviews. I had to decide when and how to inform the group of people I was interacting with that my pronouns were not, in fact, she/her/hers, and that I did not identify as female—which frequently led to me having to educate the group on gender identity. The self-identification and attempts at education did not succeed in keeping professionals and peers from misgendering me.

The issue of body dissatisfaction that frequently comes with an eating disorder is intensified in most gender nonconforming people, as they simply feel their body does not represent who they are. On top of the body image work for my eating disorder, I had to learn how to accept my body as a genderqueer person who doesn’t feel like this is the body I should be living in.

I was lucky to have very patient and mostly gender savvy people as providers, and I have now been in remission for a sustained period of time, but not everyone has that experience. That we now have researchers who are studying gender nonconforming people and eating disorders demonstrates progress, but there is not yet a general recognition of the intersection between gender nonconformity and mental health. However, I have hope that we will get there someday in the near future.

For recovery resources and treatment options, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.

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Proud2Bme is an online community created by and for teens. We cover everything from fashion and beauty to news, culture, and entertainment—all with the goal of promoting positive body image and encouraging healthy attitudes about food and weight.

This site was developed in partnership with Riverduinen and made possible by generous contributions from JPMorgan Chase, Globant, the University of Delaware, and The Hilda & Preston Davis Foundation.

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