Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders in a way that some readers may find distressing.
While the LGBTQIA+ community has long faced a string of adversities, events such as WorldPride and Mardi Gras strive to both acknowledge the progress that has been made in the fight for equality, and celebrate queer communities, identities and relationships. However, some sobering statistics reveal the challenges that many LGBTQIA+ people face in terms of body image and self-confidence before large events like these.
Research commissioned by the Butterfly Foundation reveals that 47% of LGBTQIA+ people feel increased body image pressure in the lead-up to major community events. The findings indicate that this seasonal spike in the prevalence of body image concerns often leads people to engage in harmful disordered eating behaviours, with approximately 36% of people engaging in restricted eating, fasting, or dieting, and 19% engaging in excessive exercise with the aim to lose weight.
Clinical psychologist and Butterfly’s National Helpline Supervisor Tania Nichols says that many people in general face increased body pressure in the summer months, when their bodies are more likely to be on display. This, plus the increased dialogue on social media about appearing a certain way at events like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, for example, only accentuates the pressure.
"On social media, you see messages like 'Lose weight for Mardi Gras' or 'Gain the lean and muscular ideal'," Nichols tells Refinery29 Australia. "Gyms are also advertising [similar messages], encouraging customers to come in and lose weight for Mardi Gras."
Non-binary content creator Jonti Ridley experienced body dysmorphia "that quickly evolved into other body image issues" from around the age of 10, which eventually led to an eating disorder. They agree with Nichols that problematic dialogue on social media and the commercialisation of LGBTQIA+ events can contribute to this pressure, particularly for those who have struggled to feel acceptance and belonging their whole lives.
"It's incredibly easy to manipulate and commodify an underrepresented minority when the thing that you are selling is the thing that they wanted most of their life," says Ridley. "What I mean by that is a lot of queer and trans youth experience their childhood with a sense of otherness.
"You're ostracised from a pretty early age, bullying is incredibly common, and the family dynamic can be really difficult to navigate as you're going through things such as puberty and high school."
"But when you get a little bit older and you have a company holding out their hand promising you acceptance, validation, lust and all of these things... it's very easy to look at that with stars in your eyes and think that they are selling you acceptance."
Ridley says they believe a lot of the commercial messaging around events like Mardi Gras are "wrapped up in body shaming, over-sexualization and a very narrow perception of what the queer community is".
Nichols says that when people see this sort of messaging, the reactive behaviour may be relatively smaller lifestyle adjustments to begin with, but which can potentially lead to more damaging outcomes later on.
"We see increased exercise, but also a tendency to engage in greater dietary restrictions or perhaps going on quite dangerous diets in the lead up to Mardi Gras to try and lose a heap of weight or gain muscle in a really short period of time," she explains.
While some people may try to go on a restrictive diet before stopping after a few days, Nichols says it's "really dangerous" for people who are "more predisposed to developing disordered eating".
"It's putting them at risk of nutritional deficits, dehydration and all sorts of physiological concerns like cardiovascular and blood pressure issues. Over time, if people continue to maintain those behaviours, they could go down the track of disordered eating and perhaps developing a diagnosable eating disorder."
Ridley believes that social media content creators must be aware of the influence they have on young people within the LGBTQIA+ community, and the impact that harmful body image messaging can have on them.
"The level of body checking that I think a lot of influencers are letting fly under the radar and pretending that that's not the content they're creating... I think they're doing a disservice to the minors and the children that are following them," says Ridley.
"Personally, I refuse to put out any kind of instructional 'what I eat in a day' content. I find that content really triggering myself, so I personally refuse to recreate any content that I think could potentially upset me or cause a relapse for myself."
Author, content creator and Yorta Yorta woman Allira Potter is attending Mardi Gras for the first time this year, and while she isn't feeling the pressure to fit in, she hasn't always felt this confident.
Potter only realised she liked women after divorcing her husband, and first assumed that she "had to fit into the lesbian community and dress and look a certain way".
"Maybe a couple of years ago, if I was to go to Mardi Gras, I think I would be feeling this intense pressure... to change yourself or make yourself look the hottest and the most shredded you've ever been for Mardi Gras."
She says that social media can play a huge role in proactively communicating positive body image messages ahead of LGBTQIA+ events and all year round.
Both Potter and Jonti are involved in the Butterfly Foundation and Instagram's #BodyPrideOnline campaign that "encourages all LGBTQIA+ people and allies to celebrate equality, diversity and authenticity, irrespective of appearance, shape, size or identity".
"With the more positive messages that we're putting out there, it means it's going to be OK for the younger generations to understand that they don't need to change anything about themselves," says Potter.
From the perspective of someone who works with in the body image space, Nichols agrees that "we need to start to change our dialogue on social media". She says it's becoming more common for the Butterfly Foundation's helpline to receive calls from people within the LGBTQIA+ community who are struggling with body image issues, but there's still often "quite a long delay between initial diagnosis and receiving treatment in that community".
For people struggling with body image issues, Nichols recommends contacting the helpline or seeking medical advice from a GP and getting a mental health care plan or an eating disorder treatment plan. "There are clinicians out there who can work with you, and love to work with people in the [queer] community."
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.