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"Accepting who you are is freedom": A Pride Q&A with Sarah, Beat Support Officer

We know eating disorders touch many people in the LGBTQ+ community, and we want to share those stories both from the people we support, and those here at Beat.

So we loved getting the chance to speak to Sarah, who does amazing work supporting people with eating disorders over in our services team, and was kind enough to share her own experience.

Hi Sarah! Can you tell us a bit about your experience with eating disorders?

I grew up in the early 2000s in rural England, so I didn’t have a lot of access to resources or representation for LGBTQ+ people. I’d hear casual homophobic slurs, constant debates over whether gay people should be given the right to have their relationships legally recognised. I internalised it all as queer = bad, straight = good. So as a young queer person, I must be bad. It caused a lot of shame – about myself, about my identity – and eating disorders love to feed off shame.

So my eating disorder took hold of me for ten years, from when I was 13. It was a way to suppress my identity and the shame I felt about it. It convinced me that to be happy I needed to be what other people and society wanted me to be: thin, straight, feminine. My eating disorder convinced me my attraction to women was just admiration, not attraction. It wasn’t until I began recovery and started to accept myself that I was able to accept my sexuality and come out.

Did you find that self-acceptance helped you in your recovery?

Absolutely. Coming out was so liberating. I felt seen and heard for who I really was, instead of putting on a mask to be what I thought I was meant to be. And once I’d accepted my sexuality and it was something I was able to really embrace, I found the LGBTQ+ community has such a different appreciation and understanding of people as individuals. There’s such a celebration of varied beauty standards. There’s so much more acceptance.

It helped me appreciate myself and my body in a way I hadn’t previously considered, because things I was critical of in myself, I could admire in others. So then coming out helped me go, you know what? I’m great! They look great, I look great! There was that freedom to feel not fitting into heteronormative cisgender societal expectations was a good, positive thing.

It feels like there’s so much value in sharing experiences with others in the community.

So much, for so many reasons. We know LGBTQ+ people disproportionately experience mental health conditions, including eating disorders. If people are open about their struggles, it’s very likely someone else has experienced something similar, and will understand where you’re coming from. That peer support makes it easier to destigmatise mental ill health – hearing other people talk about it, you know you’re not alone in how you feel. You’re not the only one that maybe struggles with this and how this relates to your identity.

And it’s great to be able to share advice. A previous housemate was also queer and opened up when I talked about my experience. She looked into counselling because I’d shared how helpful it was. And in turn she was later able to share a resource she’d found to help LGBTQ+ people get free counselling.

It’s amazing to be able to share experiences, get support from another person, and start to open that conversation to destigmatise the challenges we face.

Speaking of challenges – a lot’s changed since the early 2000s, but not as much as we’d hope. What are your thoughts on the challenges LGBTQ+ people are facing today?

Well, the resources and information available for queer kids now is so much better. When I was growing up, there weren’t any queer people on TV – and if there were, they were very stereotypical gay or lesbian characters that were kind of comical, almost. It didn’t help me to feel seen or understood.

I think that has improved. But while for some people there’s a lot more information and acceptance now, I definitely see parallels between the conversations I heard about gay people growing up and those about transgender, non-binary and gender diverse people today. And I know how damaging it is to hear your rights debated. People growing up already ostracised by society are going to be vulnerable to hearing and internalising those conversations, and that is very likely to feed into their mental health. So there’s a lot we still need to work at to make sure everyone can comfortably be who they are.

Are there any resources that really helped you?

I contacted Switchboard when I was ill. I found it so helpful to talk to someone about what I was feeling and get support and understanding without fearing judgement. I knew it was confidential and I didn’t have to face that person. But knowing I was speaking to someone who had lived experience was really helpful for me, too. It helped me clear up a lot of questions I had, because I didn’t have a lot of people in my life I could turn to with that experience.

And there are a lot of local groups emerging too. I never used them, but it’s great to know people can get support from others in the community who are experiencing similar things, or at least understand where they’re coming from.

So do you think it helps to speak with someone with shared experience during treatment – having a therapist who’s part of the community, for example?

One hundred percent. As a queer person going through treatment, you have to navigate the assumption that you’re straight and cisgender. You mention a partner and they’ll refer to a boyfriend, and it puts it on you to correct them. Which tends to be met with embarrassment that leaves you feeling like you have to reassure them. Or worse, they just don’t listen.

I once had a counsellor make really clumsy comparisons between my experience and a straight person’s – it immediately made me think this person didn’t understand where I was coming from. Anyone can provide empathy, but if you’ve not experienced something yourself, you’re not going to have the same understanding.

So I know I always feel more comfortable working with counsellors or therapists that are part of the LGBTQ+ community. You’re not having to worry about having to educate people, or about someone’s response when you do come out to them. Finding someone who shares my experience is something I’ve made a priority, and it has made a big difference.

There are so many assumptions made around both eating disorders and LGBTQ+ people. Have you noticed any particular misconceptions?

Even though we know LGBTQ+ people experience eating disorders at higher rates – they’re three times more likely to develop one than straight cisgender people – there are still assumptions about who within the community gets them. I come across the idea a lot that it’s only gay men. So as always there needs to be an understanding that eating disorders affect everyone and they don’t discriminate.

And there’s this assumption that your gender and how you present yourself somehow connects to how your eating disorder will present itself – if you’re typically feminine you’ll restrict, and if you’re typically masculine you’re more likely to binge eat. But just like with eating disorders more broadly, eating disorders among LGBTQ+ people are going to present differently in whoever it is, and their body shape is only one symptom of that eating disorder. It’s always important to remember eating disorders are mental illnesses and need to be treated as such.

What do you think is needed – from society, treatment services, and organisations like Beat – to give LGBTQ+ people with eating disorders the support they need?

The big one is education and understanding. For a lot of people, the language used isn’t inclusive most of the time. It’s very heteronormative, and very binary – “he”, “she”, “son”, “daughter”. There’s no consideration of gender diverse people there. And it’s so easy to say “they” and “child” and “partner”. I’ve seen services that have made a point to make it clear they’re a safe space for LGBTQ+ people – simple things like asking your pronouns is really nice and welcoming, and just makes you feel a bit safer.

I’d also like to see more understanding of the challenges the community faces. There’s the constant need to correct people in the face of assumptions. There’s the need to come out again and again, and how vulnerable that makes you, having to consider whether people will treat you differently or react negatively. It’s a lot to have to constantly think about.

And before all of that, there’s the process of self-acceptance. I didn’t know you needed to come out to yourself before you came out to other people, and how hard it is to challenge all you’ve been taught so you can feel comfortable and happy with your queer identity. And straight cisgender people may not understand what that’s like. But they can challenge their internal biases and how those might affect how they interact with people. They can look at how they talk, how they act, how they hold themselves within the community, so they’re letting people know they’re safe to be who they are. It’s a huge barrier for a lot of people, not knowing how their identity is going to be received. It’s so important that we make clear, whether we’re talking about Beat or eating disorder services or wider society, that it’s a safe place for people no matter how they identify. That they can get support and won’t be treated differently.

What does it mean to you to be able to provide support for people with eating disorders?

When I was young, these kinds of services weren’t available, so to get to be a person with lived experience supporting people as they travel along that journey is inspirational. Reaching out, getting and accepting support is such a huge thing for anyone to do. So I feel honoured to facilitate the safe space I wish I’d had, to have people open up and trust me enough to let me support them as they’re working through their recovery journey.

Is there anything you’d like to share with other people in the LGBTQ+ community who may be struggling with eating disorders?

It’s a cliché, but it does get better. Who you are is valid. You do deserve to be who you are, and to love who you love. And most importantly you deserve to love yourself.

Eating disorders will do everything they can to take away your light. They will try and make themselves your whole life, and it can be very consuming. And it can also have a level of comfort to it – that’s the challenge with them.

When you’re stuck in that space, it’s very isolating. It’s very lonely. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Recovery gives you freedom to discover yourself for who you truly are, embrace that and be yourself. It brings so many opportunities you can’t even imagine when you’re still struggling.

And it is hard work, but it’s so, so worth it. Life is so much better when you let yourself be who you truly are, and release yourself from those judgments your eating disorder or society has put on you. And the eating disorder may tell you things will get better if you do what it says, but it’s lying. Happiness can come, but it comes through recovery. It comes through looking after yourself, listening to yourself, connecting with yourself, and putting your needs first, making yourself a priority. Because you do matter and who you are is important.

Finally, what does Pride mean to you?

For me it’s about acceptance. Not just acceptance from the community, from wider society, but also about celebrating that acceptance for yourself and for the people in your life. Because accepting who you are is freedom – at least for me, it felt like freedom, it felt like liberation. We’ve not always had the freedoms we have today to be able to accept ourselves and to live our true selves and live our lives as we should be able to. Many people here and around the world still don’t.

But Pride is a celebration of ourselves, of our community, of everything we’ve had to fight for, and everything we’ve had to overcome so far. It’s recognition of the work that does still need to be done. And whoever you are, it’s a space to say, you know what? We’re here. We’re queer. And that’s a good thing.

Pride, Body Image & Eating Disorders with John Whaite

14 June 2022

Bake Off winner and Strictly superstar, John Whaite joined us to discuss all things Pride, body image and eating disorders.

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