A mixed-bag holiday

Oh my God – it’s Thanksgiving Day. I’ve dreaded this day for MONTHS. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t eat breakfast. Or maybe just a piece of fruit and some coffee. LOTS of coffee. And I’ll make sure to go to the gym this morning. Okay. That sounds like a plan. 

But what if I get hungry? Can I hold out until dinnertime? I’ll chew gum. I’ll drink coffee and diet soda. I’ll make sure to keep my hands busy so I won’t eat. 

And then what’ll I do when I get there? I’ll be SURROUNDED by food! Maybe I can pass hors d’oeuvres around (if I’m holding the tray, I won’t be eating what’s ON the tray). Or I can set the table. But I know that Grandma baked the pies, and she’ll be heartbroken if I don’t have a piece.

How many calories does pie have, anyway? 200 calories? 500 calories? 1000 calories???

Maybe I shouldn’t have had that piece of fruit this morning after all.

Thanksgiving is one of those mixed-bag holidays. It’s intended to be a day to give thanks, to be in a state of gratitude, and to surround ourselves with family and loved ones. But for some people, being around family just ain’t pretty, especially around the holidays. Other people (including LGBTQ people who have been rejected by their blood relatives) don’t have family to be around. Still others wrestle with how to observe the Thanksgiving holiday in a way that honors the historical and cultural realities surrounding the Europeans’ treatment of those indigenous to these lands.

And then we have, on top of all that, the 10 million Americans who suffer from a diagnosable eating disorder. For them, obsessive thoughts like the ones described above have probably been festering for days, even weeks, before the Thanksgiving holiday – and when the day finally arrives, you’re surrounded by your biggest fear for a whole entire day. To friends and family, people with eating disorders seem incredibly selfish. If you plan to take just “one small taste” of the pumpkin pie before it is served, and then you end up eating the whole thing and throwing it up afterwards, others will probably – understandably – see that behavior as selfish. But it’s not an intentional selfishness – in fact, it truly may be the only self-preservation tool the person has in their mental health toolbox. Having an eating disorder feels like being in a prison, except you’re your own jailer, and the only way to get away from the torturous, anxiety-provoking thoughts is to engage in some kind of selfish-looking, self-destructive behavior. Eating disorders do a great job of ruining a perfectly good holiday meal. For everyone.

What does this have to do with LGBTQ people? you’re probably wondering – AGAIN.

Well, two reasons. First, I’ve been there. It was a long time ago, but the memory of what it was like is clear as day. And it wasn’t pretty. (We’ll leave it at that for now.)

The second reason is more research-y, if you will. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when eating disorder research really took off, there weren’t many studies focusing on body dissatisfaction and eating disorders among LGBTQ people. What little did exist suggested that, although gay men appeared to be at a high risk for body image issues and disordered eating, that wasn’t necessarily the case for other queer populations. (Regarding transgender people, no studies existed in the 1980s and 1990s, and only a couple of individual case studies – but none with a decent sample size – have been published since then.)  Today, the research paints a very different picture, in some cases indicating that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are at higher risk than straight people (particularly heterosexual men) for engaging in eating disordered behaviors. Bryn Austin of Children’s Hospital in Boston, for example, followed 14,000 youth between the ages of 12-23, and found that compared to heterosexuals, eating disordered behaviors were significantly more common among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning individuals. Moreover, straight males were the least likely to experience body image issues and disordered eating – gay males, lesbian females, bisexual males and females, and heterosexual females all showed a comparable uptick of these behaviors. Letitia Anne Peplau, a researcher at UCLA, found something similar in two of her studies, the first involving 2,500 adults, the second drawing over 54,000 participants. In both studies, heterosexual men were unlikely to experience body image issues – in comparison, gay men, lesbian women, heterosexual women experienced a similarly high rate of body image issues.

These are all large-scale studies, in comparison to the much smaller sample sizes common to studies a few decades ago. From a research methods standpoint, the larger the sample, the more robust your findings tend to be. In other words, what Bryn Austin and Letitia Peplau found isn’t a fluke – thousands of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people indicated that they suffer from body image disturbances and engage in eating disordered behavior. When researchers begin to include transgender people in a meaningful way, I bet the findings won’t be all that different.

This shouldn’t be surprising, really. Living in a culture of oppression is like being a fish and swimming in toxic water. Swallowing some of that water is unavoidable, just like internalizing oppressive attitudes is unavoidable. It’s no wonder that so many LGBTQ people attempt suicide. Or abuse drugs and alcohol, or engage in unsafe sex practices, or self-mutilate in some way, or suffer from debilitating depression or anxiety. Or have an eating disorder. These are hate crimes committed against the self, if you want to get real about what LGBTQ people often do to themselves.

There are lots of tips out there about how to survive Thanksgiving if you have an eating disorder. The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt has a good tip sheet. The Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders has a good article for family members, particularly for people who are in some form of treatment or recovery. And there are lots of ways to observe Thanksgiving that don’t have to involve surrounding yourself with food and triggers all day.

But I have this thought that I want to leave you with. As I said earlier, Thanksgiving is a mixed-bag holiday – a day of celebration and gratitude for many, a day of mourning for others. For those who have suffered oppression at the hands of others, and for those who direct oppressive practices towards themselves, I urge you to think about this:

What would it be like if oppression didn’t exist?

What would it be like if people didn’t oppress others in order to secure their own power?

What would it be like if we had the power – and claimed that power – to stop oppressing ourselves?

There would be nothing mixed-bag about Thanksgiving at all.


Filed under bisexuality, culture, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, transgender, violence

2 responses to “A mixed-bag holiday

  1. Lorri Doig

    I am so grateful for my family. They make sure that there is plenty that I CAN eat so that I can enjoy being with everyone, including our newlyweds who were finally able to marry this year (they missed the window a few years ago) after decades of being married under every standard but the law. Going to SD for the holiday really feels like going home.

    • I’m so glad! And I’m glad that you can take care of yourself so that you CAN enjoy your family. There’s nothing worse than being so riddled with obsessive thoughts that they distract us from what is important and good.

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