eating disorders in the male homosexual community. Eating disorders of all kinds are prevalent in the homosexual male community for a variety of reasons. Eating disorders are common in young people concerned with their appearances, but they usually occur in young females. Gay men are often extremely concerned with their appearances, as well, which is one reason they are more susceptible to these disorders.
A large number of gay men suffer from some type of eating disorder, especially when compared with heterosexual men. A Columbia University study found, "According to the study results, more than 15% of gay or bisexual men had at some time suffered anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder, or at least certain symptoms of those disorders -- a problem known as a subclinical eating disorder, compared with less than five percent of heterosexual men" (Columbia University, 2007). It is important to define eating disorders before attempting to discover the factors that lead to these disorders in gay men.
Anorexia and bulimia are probably the most well-known types of eating disorders. Anorexia is when a person starves himself or herself to the point of extreme thinness, and it can be life threatening. Bulimia is a manner of controlling weight by throwing up after eating. Binge eating is a form of bulimia, where a person eats a large amount of food and then purges it, by using laxatives, or other purging methods. A writer defines them this way, "The canon contains only two major categories -- anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN). Anorexia nervosa has low weight as an essential criterion. Bulimia nervosa has binge eating as a necessary criterion" (Palmer, 2003, p. 2). In men, a common eating disorder is known as the "Adonis Complex," where men long for a "perfect" muscular and toned body, and they develop eating disorders to help them reach their goals of perfection. Any of these types of eating disorders can be combined, and they all lead to health concerns and can lead to death. In the 1980s, popular singer Karen Carpenter died as a result of anorexia, it affected her heart function, and she had a heart attack when she was only 32-years-old.
What are the factors that lead to eating disorders in gay males? Clearly, there are many factors, but few studies have been conducted in this area, so factors are still being uncovered. One of the Columbia researchers notes, "One theory is that the values and norms in the gay men's community promote a body-centered focus and high expectations about physical appearance, so that, similar to what has been theorized about heterosexual women, they may feel pressure to maintain an ideal body image'" (Columbia University, 2007). Gay men judge each other on looks, just as heterosexual men and women judge each other on looks, and this puts more pressure on gay men to maintain their physical appearance to gain the approval of the community. Two other authors note, "Silberstein et al. (1989) found that for gay men physical appearance was very central for their sense of self-worth. Gay men also exercised more than heterosexual men to improve attractiveness. These pressures in their specific culture may make gay men more vulnerable to eating disorders" (Fichter & Krenn, 2003, p. 377). In body-conscious America, gay men often participate heavily in the gay community, and that makes them feel the pressure to look their best.
Many gay men also work in areas that demand excellent physiques, such as acting or modeling, and many work in the fashion community, which demands model thinness to the extreme. This could add to the pressure they feel to look attractive, and could lead to developing an eating disorder to manage their weight. Many men have become extremely interested in their health, and this has followed in the gay community. The Adonis complex, which looks for perfection in the male body, can trigger an eating disorder in gay men who are totally consumed with how they look, and reaching athletic perfection. Gay body builders may build up muscle but suffer from anorexia because they are terrified of gaining weight.
Three other researchers have another idea about what creates eating disorders in some gay men. They believe gay men with more feminine traits will develop eating disorders. They write, "The researchers' hypothesis is that both men and women who have feminine traits will exhibit unhealthy body image and eating habits vs. men and women who have masculine traits will have lower levels of both unhealthy eating and body image" (Meyer, Blissett, and Oldfield, 2001, p. 314). We know that eating disorders are tied to body image, and gay men can have negative views of their bodies just as young women can. If these gay men see themselves as more feminine, they may actually identify and understand young women's negative images, and develop them on their own.
No matter who suffers from eating disorders, there are some common factors in developing them. These are negative body image and low self-esteem. Almost all the people who suffer from an eating disorder have these underlying problems, and gay men are no different. A writer notes, "Besides anorexia and bulimia, eating disorders or body image problems can take the form of intense preoccupation with weight and appearance, purging or obsessive dieting, and changes in social functioning" (Nguyen, 2006, p. 24). These problems appear in just about every young person's life, but some react to them differently than others, and they develop eating disorders. The same is true for gay men. They develop eating disorders for a variety of reasons, with the same results.
These factors are clearly different from factors that lead to eating disorders in heterosexual males and lesbian/heterosexual females. These groups often engage in eating disorders because of poor body image or athletic performance. Studies also indicate that homosexual women seem more at home with their bodies, as they engage in fewer eating disorders that gay men do. The Columbia University researchers state, "In contrast, sexual orientation did not seem to influence the risk of eating disorder symptoms among women. Just below 10% of lesbian and bisexual women and eight percent of heterosexual women had ever reported having a subclinical eating disorder" (Columbia University, 2007). Traditionally, in the straight community, it is adolescent teen girls who suffer from eating disorders, but young men, particularly those who participate in athletics that require some kind of weight requirement, also can develop eating disorders.
Another group of researchers notes why lesbians suffer far fewer eating disorders. They write, "Lesbians were more likely to be more comfortable with their bodies than heterosexual females because they were around like-minded individuals, their subculture reinforced women to love their bodies as they are, and more lesbians had masculine traits linked to their personalities and lifestyles" (Meyer, Blissett, and Oldfield, 2001, p. 314). Therefore, lifestyle is a factor, but so are the traits that homosexual men and women develop in their community.
Another factor that has been found in recent studies is family background. Studies indicate that gay men who have suffered child abuse or other childhood trauma show an increased danger of developing eating disorders, and they indicate these disorders may continue through life, growing increasingly difficult to treat. Family trauma of other natures, such as divorce or family shunning because of sexual orientation is another factor, as well.
The Columbia University study indicates that gay men suffer the most from subclinical bulimia (9.3%), subclinical binge eating (9.3%), and full clinical anorexia (6.2%) the most. Subclinical means they show symptoms of these disorders, while full clinical means they are indeed suffering from an eating disorder. Since many people practice more than one aspect of an eating disorder, it can be hard to pinpoint which one they suffer from. The researchers at Columbia used the "WMH-CIDI, a fully structured measure used in the National Comorbidity Study" (Columbia University, 2007). This assesses the subject's eating activities according to a scale, which tells the researchers what type of eating disorder they suffer from. Another interesting finding by many researchers is that men, who reach puberty later, tend to begin an eating disorder at an older age than women do. Women tend to begin in their late teens, while men tend to begin after they turn 20 (Fichter & Krenn, 2003, p. 374).
Why do gay men suffer from these specific diseases? That is difficult to understand. Some men may want a more feminine, female appearance, so they develop anorexia to maintain a very thin physique, plus they truly fear getting fat, which is a symptom of anorexia. Other men may have healthy appetites, but they binge at times, or purge themselves because they ate too many calories. If they participate in this behavior repeatedly, they are bulimic, while if the engage two or three times a week they are binge eating. The reasons gay men engage in these activities may not be completely clear, and more studies need to be done on this aspect of eating disorders. The…