Social media floods our culture with tales of celebrities’ personal struggles. “I suffer from binge-eating disorder, a disease in which I’m not only addicted to food, but I eat it in large quantities,” transgender activist Jazz Jennings shared in June. Singer Demi Lovato, who recently announced a non-binary identity, continues to battle a years-long struggle with bulimia. She wrote about her obsessive thoughts in May, “I still struggle. Daily. There are periods of time where I forget about my food struggles and other times it’s all I think about. Still.”
Unfortunately, Jazz and Demi aren’t alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the isolation, heightened anxiety and school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in eating disorders among adolescents. Doctors acknowledge that social media, absence of activities, and loneliness exacerbated the growing number of disorders. Stephenie B. Wallace, M.D., observed, “we’re seeing a lot of young people who are facing all kinds of mental health disorders that are on the rise, as our young people have been in the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year, and eating disorders are included.”
Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are fueled by an obsessive preoccupation with body image and an overwhelming feeling of a lack of control. Similarly, the growing number of adolescents, predominantly girls, captivated by gender dysphoria experience anxiety and obsessive thoughts about their bodies. Their body image preoccupation manifests as obsessive ruminations about their gender.
A 2020 study, Gender Dysphoria, Eating Disorders and Body Image: An Overview, found on the National Institute for Health’s (NIH) National Library of Medicine, concluded that, “gender dysphoria and eating disorders are characterized by a serious discomfort to the body and the body suffers in both conditions.” The research found that, “rates of pathological eating behaviors and symptoms related to a disordered diet are high in patients with gender dysphoria.” The NIH website includes numerous additional studies documenting the link between gender dysphoria, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating.
During the eating disorder recovery process, parents are empowered by medical and mental health professionals to take control of their child’s eating routines. To help the child recover, parents are instructed to oversee how much the child eats and when. School counselors support this parental oversight by having the children, predominantly girls, eat lunch in the counseling office. The counselor emails the parent a daily food consumption report.
And yet, parents with daughters who have historically struggled with anxiety, body image, obsessive thoughts, and eating disorders are being told that any expression of gender dysphoria, commonly known as a transgender identity, must be affirmed and validated. Rather than partner with parents, doctors, mental health professionals, and public school staff ignore the child’s mental health anguish, and focus only on validating their gender confusion.
A growing number of detransitioners—people who have stopped affirming a transgender identity—are sharing how desperately they wish they had received help for their mental health issues. Helena Kerschner, who has detransitioned, explains:
“There’s a lot of comorbid mental health issues. There’s a lot of depression, anxiety, self-harm, OCD, eating disorders. I think that we should treat these young people the same way we would treat any other young person who’s struggling with mental health issues. We should be caring and loving to them. And we should get them help, and we [should] pay attention to the root causes of why they’re feeling the way that they’re feeling.”
In stark contrast to the partnership formed during an eating disorder, Virginia’s state-recommended transgender policies do not require school staff to notify a parent when a child requests affirmation of their gender identity. In situations “when their families are not affirming,” schools are encouraged to report concerns to Child Protective Services. By keeping the child’s gender dysphoria from parents and focusing on gender affirmation, rather than the mental health issues that may be fueling their feelings, schools are blocking the child’s access to vital mental health services.
An alarming number of adolescents, especially girls, are emerging from the pandemic unhappy and unhealthy, with mental health issues that could quickly metastasize into dangerous eating disorders and obsessive gender dysphoria. With activities still restricted due to COVID concerns, girls are not getting the exercise, skill acquisition, and social interaction vital for healthy development. Even before the pandemic, their rates of depression and anxiety had spiked due to social media and the isolating impact of a life spent predominantly on screens.
These vulnerable girls deserve society’s full attention, and the recognition that the mental health issues related to their eating disorders and gender dysphoria must be diagnosed and treated. Doctors, mental health providers, and schools must partner with parents to help these vulnerable girls get stronger and overcome the deceit of their obsessive thoughts—not make them a permanent fixture in their lives.