Content warning: Discussion of eating disorders.
The term ‘eating disorder’ is autological, it defines itself. Anyone who has frequent disordered eating behaviours or habits can be labelled as having an eating disorder and last year I started displaying these behaviours. Understanding that this goes beyond the typical illnesses such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder is useful and life-changing. According to a survey published by the Trevor Project in 2018, 54% of the 1,034 young LGBTQ participants between the ages of 13 and 24 have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, with 75% having suspected that they had an eating disorder throughout their lifetime. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the exception to this.
Growing up gay, for me, was comparatively easier than most other LGBTQ+ people. I came from a middle-class town with liberal friends and parents who tolerated the fact I was gay. Before I ‘came-out’ I had deep internalised homophobia, constantly making excuses for my attraction to men - the one I held on to the longest was that I wasn’t sexually attracted to the men I saw in the media, I just wanted to look like them (and the irony still stings). I had always been on the slightly heavier side, my weight was never a real concern for my health and was never something to worry about but I remember the two times school had weighed everyone in my year (for obvious public health reasons) and my friends and I would compare our weight with each other. This is not to blame for my disordered eating but it certainly ingrained the idea that I needed to lose weight and I needed to be skinnier, from the young age of 11 or 12. I was able to laugh and turn my insecurities into a joke so throughout my highschool career, there was no real issue with my eating and my anxieties were shrugged off as adolescent naivety. The numerical and physical difference of my body was certainly a place of insecurity which was multiplied by the fact I was starting to realise and become more aware of my sexuality.
I left my small town for the big city in 2018 when I moved to university. I still had the same anxieties but I had this confidence built up because I wanted to meet as many people as possible and make lots of friends. I joined societies and a sports club which made me fitter and a more ‘tolerable body’. For the most part of my first year, I was extremely happy - even though whenever i’d have sex, i’d always have to have my shirt on (unless I was drunk). My body was not too much of a concern to me. However, at the end of my first year I started working as a mentor for 16 year olds throughout the Summer. While I loved all the young people i worked with and had a really great ‘older brother’ relationship with them, the job was intense, I got a maximum of 4-5 hours of sleep every night (a lot of my job was residential or a 2 hour bus journey in the morning) and it isolated me from my friends and family. My confidence came crashing down and my anxieties surrounding my weight and sexuality resurfaced. When I went back to uni in September I had different priorities to my first year and I was in more control over what I could eat and this is when my disordered eating developed.
Eating disorders isolate you, they overshadow you and they make you constantly second-guess yourself before you do anything. For example, if i wanted to go on a night out there would be so much going on in my head - how much will you drink? Do you know how much damage one beer would do to your daily caloric intake? You don’t want a beer belly, you look awful. I lost a dangerous amount of weight in my first semester of second-year and it was my unhappiest. I felt so alone and my personality completely shifted; the eating disorder had taken control. My bubbly happiness had been starved.
There are so many reasons why this happened despite my anxieties as a teenager. I had just started dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr. I struggled to connect with almost everyone I met on Tinder because I wasn’t into ‘gay’ enough which made me doubt my identity. Grindr was intense - people's profiles included their weight, height and their ‘tribe’. If you’re not familiar with the term, in the queer community a ‘tribe’ is body type catagory - ‘twinks’ for young, skinny, white boys, ‘Bears’ for larger, older, hairier men etc… This gave me a lot of anxiety as I developed body dysmorphia at the time, which often compliments eating disorders. I felt know sense of connectedness to the gay community and didn’t feel worthy of sex or a relationship. The rhetoric of being “too ugly to be gay” is rooted in heteronormative standards placed on gay men so they can”pass” as being straight and masculine - something which is fetishised within the gay community.
My second-semester of uni was much better than my first as I started to open up about my relationship with food and my body. To this day I have only told around five people but telling them five people has made it so much easier to cope. Lockdown has made things tricky, but progress is not linear. My second semester was by no means perfect but I was able to start having FUN again.
We need to talk about this more and we need to start creating safer spaces in the gay community. I am clearly part of a majority and it's insane we are not doing something more. We need greater representation of diverse body types in the media and to stop holding gay people to these standards - how many gay protagonists can you name that don’t have a desirable body type??
(Originally published 23/07/20)