Discrimination in the Eating Disorder Community

While eating disorder awareness has improved in the United States, there still seems to be many misconceptions regarding the “types of individuals” who have an eating disorder. Many individuals usually think of eating disorders as a “heterosexual Caucasian female” problem, and as a result males, people of color and individuals in the LGBTQ community are less likely to be diagnosed and face more significant barriers to treatment. All individuals regardless of their race, gender, age or sexual orientation share the same eating disorder signs and symptoms, even if their risk factors differ. People of color and individuals in the LGBTQ community face unique challenges that may put them at higher risk for developing an eating disorder. According to NEDA, research reveals that beginning as early as 12 years of age, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers may be at higher risk of binge eating and purging compared to their heterosexual peers. Statistics also show that African-American and Hispanic teenagers have a higher prevalence of disordered eating patterns compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Even if the incidence and prevalence of eating disorders were equal across the board for all individuals, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, the risk factors, stereotypes and stigma attached to minority populations in regards to weight, body image and diet would contribute to these minority individuals experiencing hurdles in overcoming an eating disorder.

Stereotypes prevent overcoming an eating disorder

Stereotypes are cognitive shortcuts that allow one’s brains to make a snap judgment based off of immediate visceral feelings associated with physical characteristics, instead of basing opinions off of facts and statistics. Stereotypes regarding eating disorders create an increasing stigma and heighten the barrier to treatment, as many of these marginalized individuals are too scared to speak out because they “may not fit the mold for anorexia or bulimia” and as a result, they feel that others may not take their illness seriously. Research has shown that people of color, the LGBTQ community and men are less likely to seek treatment for an eating disorder due to cultural differences, fear of rejection, and discrimination.

Discrimination among health care providers

Unfortunately, health professionals are also blinded by the stereotypes associated with eating disorders, which can vastly affect the quality of treatment and referrals to eating disorder specialists. People of color with self-acknowledged disordered eating patterns and body weight concerns are significantly less likely than white individuals to have been asked by a doctor about eating disorder symptoms, despite similar rates of eating disorder symptoms across all ethnic groups. Health care providers struggle to adjust to the fact that many minority people of color and individuals in the LGBTQ community still face significant barriers to recovery. According to studies and statistics published on NEDA’s website, there is a large amount of discrimination coming from healthcare providers surrounding the stereotypes associated with eating disorders. “When presented with identical case studies demonstrating disordered eating symptoms in white, Hispanic and Black women, clinicians were asked to identify if the woman’s eating behavior was problematic. 44% identified the white woman’s behavior as problematic; 41% identified the Hispanic woman’s behavior as problematic, and only 17% identified the Black woman’s behavior as problematic. The clinicians were also less likely to recommend that the Black woman should receive professional help”. Eating disorders are isolating illnesses masked in shame, and it is extremely challenging for a biracial gay man, a Muslim girl in a hijab, or a trans-Latina woman to find a doctor or therapist who looks like them or is familiar with their culture. Because of the stigma associated with these differences, it is that much harder to establish a trusting, productive relationship in eating disorder treatment.