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Eating disorders impacting Utah’s queer community

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Feeling comfortable in his skin seems like a completely foreign concept to Kona Faamoe, an 18-year-old West Valley City resident. After years of being bullied in junior high for his weight and sexuality, Faamoe said he has issues with control.

“Sometimes my weight seems like the only thing that I can control,” Faamoe said. “I was so frustrated when I couldn’t control who I was attracted to, but I started to finally be able to control my life and it felt so good.”

Faamoe weighed in at 260 lbs., which wasn’t much for someone who is 6 feet 5 inches tall. But shortly after he started to purge after meals, he began losing weight. A lot of weight. He lost more than 120 pounds, and at a low of a mere 140 pounds, he saw that there was an issue. Sometimes he would purge four or five times a day.

“Looking back at the pictures, I see how gross I looked, but part of me wants to do it again and get down to that weight,” Faamoe said. “Even when I was that skinny, I still saw myself as the old 260-pound person. No matter what, I see myself as overweight.”

While neither Faamoe, nor psychological specialists, would venture to say with certainty why he has developed an eating disorder, there are a variety of factors.

“I’ve never been happy with my body and the way I look,” Faamoe said. “After being bullied and teased so much, I started to develop some serious issues.”

Faamoe, and others with eating disorders, can face a variety of serious health issues, some fatal, including malnutrition, dehydration, muscle atrophy, acid reflux disorders, cancer, insomnia, hyperactivity, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney infection and failure, heart palpitations and many more.

Despite knowing about the many concerns, Faamoe said the idea of gaining weight terrifies him more than those complications.

However, Faamoe’s plight is not uncommon. A recent study done by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that gay men are more likely to develop an eating disorder than their straight counterparts, and more than 15 percent of gay male Americans have an eating disorder. These disorders include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Less than 5 percent of straight men have, or have had, eating disorders, according to the study. It indicates that more than 10 percent of lesbian women have an eating disorder, compared to approximately 8 percent of straight women.

There needs to be more studies done that follow people who identify as transgender with eating disorders, but researchers estimate higher-than normal occurrences of eating disorders within the transgender community, said Justine Reel, a University of Utah professor and representative of the group, Students Promoting Eating Disorders Awareness and Knowledge.

The study did not try to identify why there is a higher likelihood that someone who identifies as queer is more likely to develop an eating disorder.

Control issues that manifest themselves through eating patterns can be a common occurrence for the general population of people with eating disorders, not just those that identify as queer, Reel said.

Another factor, Reel said, is that members of minority groups, such as racial or sexual minorities, have more than one body-image ideal to live up to. Sometimes, such as within the lesbian community, there may be an ideal body image type that some lesbians feel they actualize, and that ideal body may differ from the images being promulgated from mainstream media. However, there is still pressure to conform to the more mainstream images, and the dual pressure can lead to even more confusion and frustration with the body, Reel said.

“Causes of eating disorders are complex and each case is unique,” Reel said. “I would hesitate to try and diagnose an entire group of people because each individual case is going to change.”

Affects on Others

Although Faamoe admits that there is a problem, he said he is not yet ready to receive treatment and no one can help him reach that point, until he decides it for himself.

“I don’t think anyone can make me get treatment or help and no matter how hard they try, it’s not going to happen,” Faamoe said. “I don’t think that anyone can make that difference until I decide I am ready to find treatment.”

It took a long time before Salt Lake City resident Frank Harnden learned he could not make his ex-boyfriend, Jack Jones (name has been changed), receive treatment.

“He was always skinny,” Harnden said. “He never exercised and he ate so much food, I never understood it, but it never crossed my mind that he might have a problem.”

After about a year of dating, Harnden asked Jones to move in with him, and at first, things were going great. But one evening, after preparing a large meal, Harnden walked past the bathroom to hear sounds of Jones throwing up.

“It was like my life was flashing before my eyes. I was as white as a ghost. I had goose bumps. I thought, ‘holy shit,’ and it all made sense. I knew how he stayed so skinny,” Harnden said.

That evening, Harnden confronted Jones about his problem. Jones denied he had a problem and that he purged.

Jones had other tricks to keep his weight down, like drinking a lot of fluids and binging and purging at night, when he thought no one was around. After continual confrontation he changed his behavior until he thought everyone had forgotten about it. He cut down his food intake and assured everyone he was over it. But he always picked it right back up.

“I lost my job. I lost some of my best and closest friends and I am still unable to really be involved in a serious relationship,” Harnden said.

Jones also fought alcoholism and the combination of the two factors was too much for the relationship to handle, Harnden said.

“It took me a long time to realize that I can’t help him unless he was willing to admit it and help himself. It broke my heart and I still care for him. But there was nothing I could do,” Harnden said.

Finding treatment that is specialized for gay men can be a challenge, said Wendy Hoyt, a psychologist who treats people with eating disorders.

“It’s more difficult for men to find the treatment that they need,” Hoyt said. “There are no specialized, or specific, treatment or therapy groups for men in the area and most of the literature is geared toward women.”

The social stigma that accompanies eating disorders is that they affect only women, she said. However, there is a very high occurrence of eating disorders, especially with men who are involved with athletics. Extreme dieting in sports such as wrestling and track can lead to irregular eating patterns.

“At first their times and performances improve, so it’s nearly impossible to help them see there’s a problem. But their health suffers greatly in the long run,” Hoyt said.

Nationally there are few support groups geared specifically toward men with eating disorders, said Christopher Clarke, the executive director of the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders.

“There just aren’t many resources available for men,” Clarke said.

He runs the online group to help men with eating disorders so they have a way to gather information and do some interaction; however, even that is limited.

While Faamoe doesn’t like to let people know he has an eating disorder, when he does, he is often faced with people who assume it’s a condition reserved only for women.

“People say to me all the time, ‘why don’t you just stop?’ They don’t understand,” Faamoe said. “I thinking coming out as having an eating disorder was more difficult than telling my family I’m gay.”

Despite knowing all the health risks, Faamoe said he is not ready to seek treatment, but he’s working toward a full and healthy recovery.

“I want people to know that my eating disorder doesn’t define who I am. I don’t want people to look down on me because of it,” Faamoe said.

 

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