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Transgender Youth Research Reveals Body Dissatisfaction, Risk of Eating Disorders

PULLMAN, Wash.—Young people face tremendous pressure to conform to the “right” body image. But what does that mean for someone questioning his or her gender? A Washington State University McNair Scholar who analyzed what transgender youth and young adults have to say about their body image found that they report dissatisfaction with their bodies, and 17 percent report having experienced an eating disorder.

WSU McNair Scholar Cindy Ola. Click image for a high-resolution version.

“With the small percentage of individuals identifying as part of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community we come to see challenges that this community faces that are not always necessarily addressed; amongst them is the issue of body image,” according to Cindy Ola of Kennewick, who worked on the research project with Jenifer McGuire, an associate professor in the WSU Department of Human Development. “These individuals live through perceived societal norms regarding gender and what is deemed appropriate for both male and female, thus they find themselves often seeking approval.

“Transgender individuals may attempt to make clear their internal and external self by forming an identity that matches their gender identity. Therefore, these individuals find themselves dealing with body dissatisfaction, experience negative relationships with their reflection in the mirror, and may alter their appearance in numerous ways to achieve a suitable gender identity.”

Ola and McGuire studied 65 transgender individuals from seven cities across the country. Recruited through queer youth community centers and online, participants ranged in age from 15 to 26 and comprised a mix of ethnicities, including white, Latino, African American, Native American, Mexican American, Pacific Islander, Chinese and Asian.

Of the 65 respondents, 40 were born female, 25 male. Asked to describe the gender they identified with, 22 individuals identified as female, 20 as male and 23 as “gender queer,” a broad category that encompasses both/neither male and female, alternation between the two genders or a third/other gender.

Forty of the 65 transgender participants expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies, Ola said, and of those, 21 attributed their dissatisfaction to gender-related issues. Dissatisfied individuals dealt with more anxiety and a higher tendency toward perfectionism concerning their appearance, according to their interviews.

“I still struggle every day,” said one 24-year-old, female-to-male transgender interviewee. “I have a real insecurity where I worry that I’m fat and I don’t like having my chest at all. I look at myself every day in the mirror and worry about it.”

With higher anxiety comes a higher likelihood of transgender individuals engaging in self-destructive behaviors to change their bodies, including not eating, Ola said. Of the 65 interviewed participants, 11 disclosed a problem with an eating disorder, while 20 claimed to simply be dieting.

“It just felt bizarrely empowering to realize I could control my body by not eating, especially since I had been really fat for a long time and I had tried to diet in the past and it just never worked,” said a 22-year-old, female-to-gender-queer interviewee.

For the 25 surveyed transgender participants who are satisfied with their bodies, Ola said hormonal changes from taking estrogen or testosterone and sex-change surgery contributed significantly to their sense of well-being as the individuals shifted to the gender they identify with.

“I am a lot happier with my body as I’ve transitioned and as I’ve been working on being healthier,” said a 21-year-old, female-to-male transgender interviewee. “Before I had access to hormones and surgery, I spent a lot of time trying to hide who I was and the parts of myself that I was ashamed of or didn’t identify with.”

Ola said she took part in the research because her mentor, McGuire, studies LGBT youth and their parental relationships, but not their views on body image. Ola was interested in this topic because of her own personal experience—she was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when she was 13. Ola also decided to become a school psychologist for middle to high school students so she could make a difference in their lives.

“In these schools, LGBT youth are coming out but also very vulnerable to suicide or drug use,” she said. “I see this as an area to apply my research.”

Ola graduated from WSU May 5 with a bachelor’s degree in human development and a minor in psychology. During her four years at the university, she has achieved impressive recognition and taken on several leadership roles. Ola was named the 2012 Family and Consumer Scientist of the Year for the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences; 2012 Human Development Outstanding Senior of the Year; 2011 CAHNRS and Human Development Junior of the Year; and Kappa Omicron Nu Honor Society president. She also served as a CAHNRS Ambassador in addition to being a McNair Scholar, so named for her academic achievements and her status as a first-generation college student.