This is a fairly straightforward case study of a Turkish trans man (born female) with anorexia. In order to avoid menstruating, he dieted excessively and induced vomiting. He also wished to avoid looking female. This went on for 21 years, beginning when he was 19.
Once he was on hormones and menstruation stopped, the disordered eating ended. It has not returned after two years. He says he is no longer concerned with his weight since he is living as a man.
It is important to remember that this is just a case study. This is only one individual; the relationship between eating disorders and gender dysphoria is complicated. We can only come to limited conclusions from any one person’s story.
In fact, there are six other case studies where physical transition did not cure an eating disorder. Two trans women with eating disorders were already on hormones (here and here), although one of them does not seem to have been interested in recovering from her disordered eating. One trans woman believed that transition had cured her, but she was severely underweight, even more so than she had been before transition.
There are three case studies where surgery seems to have caused or triggered disordered eating. This trans man began binging and purging for the first time after having his breasts, uterus, and ovaries removed. One of the trans women in this study had an eating disorder in adolescence; her symptoms returned after sex reassignment surgery 20 years later. Finally, this adolescent trans man recovered from an eating disorder and transitioned; after his mastectomy, he began to relapse and ten months later he returned to the clinic for eating disorders.
In addition, there are a number of case studies where factors other than gender dysphoria played a role in an eating disorder. The most striking is this case of identical twins; both twins had anorexia, but only one had gender dysphoria. The twins shared genes and an abusive father, but one grew up to be a feminine gay man while the other was a trans woman.
Back to this case study. It is clearly different from typical cases of anorexia:
“The rejection of femininity was the primary underlying motivation for loss of weight, and not the wish to look slim. She stated that her primary motive for purging was to stop menstruation and her second motivation was to get rid of female body shape; the latter motivation was so strong that she expressed that if she could look like a man if she put on weight she would eagerly try to put on some weight. Thus with this definite statement she was to be separated from the primary cognition of AN which is an intense fear of gaining weight. Her eating disorder symptoms were greatly alleviated after sex reassignment.”
More importantly, in this case, taking testosterone stopped the disordered eating.
The trans man in this story also had a sex reassignment surgery, although the study does not say what the surgery was (mastectomy, genital surgery, or hysterectomy with removal of the ovaries). He changed his name and is living as a man.
It is likely that transitioning cured him of anorexia. However, it is also possible that the testosterone itself played a role. Low testosterone is linked to eating disorders in both men and women. There is a study underway to see if taking testosterone can help women with eating disorders, but we will not know the results for a few more months.
A few other things of note:
The patient did not seek help for his eating disorder, even when he saw a psychiatrist for depression. His eating disorder only came out when he applied to change his sex on his identity card and was referred to a psychiatry clinic.
In order to be able to take hormones, the patient stopped vomiting. However, he continued to restrict his calories until he was actually on hormones.
Before treatment, the trans man ate more when he was depressed.
He had problems with his teeth due to vomiting eroding the enamel.
After finishing college, he had a serious suicide attempt.
The patient’s gender dysphoria began in childhood:
“In her early childhood A.T, felt strongly that she belonged to the male sex. She played boys’ toys and games, preferred boys for playmates, and she was interested in football. When she reached puberty the growth of her breasts and the onset of menstruation caused her to have severe stress, in order to hide her breasts she was wearing extra large size clothes and she was pretending a kyphosis-like posture. During the first year of her university education she had severe depressive symptoms connected with her gender dysphoria; she was spending the greater part of her time at home as she was uneager to dress and live like a woman.”
Prolonged anorexia nervosa associated with female-to-male gender dysphoria: A case report by Şenol Turan, Cana Aksoy Poyraz, Alaattin Duran in Eat Behav. 2015 Aug;18:54-6.