In a clip for tomorrow's episode of RuPaul's Drag Race, a few of the queens speak very openly about their struggles with eating disorders. On the last episode, Eureka O’Hara made a joke about Sasha Velour having an eating disorder, so in the clip, O'Hara wants to apologize for making light of a very serious issue.
"It’s a sensitive issue for me, because I was severely anorexic for my entire early 20s," Velour says. "People would call me E.T. because of the way I looked on the street. I have a lot of hurt from it, still." Then, Valentina says that she might still have an eating disorder, and feels like she's "force-feeding" herself at times.
Shea Couleé overhears the conversation and walks over to tell them that she can relate, because she had a "deep battle" with bulimia. "I was feeling all these pressures [from] the beauty standards that exist within the gay community, and it’s something I had a lot of shame about," she says. "Sometimes, people don’t understand that, though we come across as these really strong, beautiful creatures, sometimes we’re really struggling on the inside." In an interview, Couleé says that she's surprised how many fellow drag queens have struggled with this.
"It's not just a thing with women; it's very prevalent in the gay community," Valentina says. This interaction between queens on RuPaul's Drag Race illustrates the reality of eating disorders in the LGBTQ community. "It's especially inspiring to see the [drag queens] of RuPaul's Drag Race speaking out," says Claire Mysko, CEO, National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). About a third of people struggling with an eating disorder are men, and people in the LGBTQ community are at an increased risk, she says.
Like Couleé says, the pressure is real for drag queens and gay men to look a certain way. In a 2002 study, men of all ages said they associated being fat with weakness, and a well-toned, muscular body with feelings of confidence. A 2000 study found that gay and bisexual men were 10 times more likely to have symptoms related to disordered eating. Gay men are also seven times more likely to report binging and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males, according to NEDA. Beyond the alarming prevalence of eating disorders in gay men, it can be harder for members of the LGBTQ community to find support and treatment, because after they come out, they might not have as many friends and family in their lives.
"Because of the stigma and silence surrounding these illnesses, it can be really scary to open up about struggles with an eating disorder," Mysko says. Reaching out to someone you trust and love can be an important step to getting the help you need," she says. If you're not sure where to start, NEDA has a list of helpful ways you might want to talk about your eating disorder, whether you're telling the general public or just your friends and family. "The more we talk about these issues and share our stories, the more people will feel comfortable reaching out for support," Mysko says.
At the end of the conversation, the queens laugh and re-name the show "RuPaul's Group Therapy Race."There’s power in being able to confide in your sisters and have them support you," Couleé says. A 2007 study that surveyed LGB-identified people found that a sense of connectedness to the gay community was related to fewer current eating disorders. So, having peers that support you, whether they're your Drag Race sisters or friends within the LGBTQ community, can truly make a difference.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.