Born This Way? How Sexual Orientation Does (And Doesn’t) Affect Body Image

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body image resources LGBT

“Do I Look Fat?”, a documentary by Travis Mathews & “Looking Queer” by Dawn Atkins

By Allison Epstein

“Obama Admin Funding $1.5 Million Study To Find Out Why Lesbians Are Fat”

“Yes, Seinfeld, Gays Really Are Thinner, Study Says”

“Lesbian Women Feel Less Pressure To Have A ‘Perfect’ Body”

Manorexia Is Taking Over The Gay Community!”

The media has attempted to explain the link between sexual orientation and body image with heavy-handed headlines like these. Subsequently, stereotypes around these groups form and leave us with limited information and misguided conclusions: gay men get eating disorders, lesbians don’t have body image issues, sexual orientation has nothing to do with how someone feels about their body.

And, as with any broad stereotypes, this is simply not true.

What we do know is that attention to and negative perceptions about one’s body does not avoid groups of people based on their sexual orientation. Although more research needs to be done on the subject, current evidence is revealing that while there may be a pinch of truth behind media stereotypes about body image for gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, these sweeping generalizations certainly do not tell the whole story.

Most of the conversation on sexual orientation and body image has centered on the rising prevalence of eating disorders in gay men, though there is still debate over the cause of this link. Some have suggested that gay men are more likely to strive for a more “feminine” body, and femininity in our culture is associated with thinness, but studies have shown that there is no definitive association between homosexuality and masculinity/femininity.[1]There is more evidence for the idea that peer pressure in the gay community encourages a slim, though muscular body type, similar to how photo spreads of extremely thin female models in fashion magazines affect women.

The pervasive peer pressure on gay men to have a certain body type can have serious consequences, demonstrated in the disconcerting statistic of a 2012 UK study: 48% of gay men would give up a year of their lives in exchange for a “perfect” body. The study goes on:

“They were also significantly more likely to use what the study authors called ‘body talk’: speech that implicitly or explicitly reinforces or endorses the traditional western standard of male attractiveness: tall, lean, muscular, toned body with clear skin and a full head of hair. 91.2% of gays said they make statements which reinforce this image…”

Considering this stereotype of thinness and athleticism closely associated with male homosexuality, it’s not surprising that gay men report higher levels of negative body image than do heterosexual men by more than twice as much.

Likewise, the same study also reported that a full one in three lesbian women report having a negative body image, and one in four reports engaging in disordered eating behaviors. [2] There is some debate over these findings, as this is slightly lower than the 51% of heterosexual women who report a negative body image. Some suggest that eating disorders are coping mechanisms for feelings of abnormality or fear of rejection, and since gender roles are less confining for women than men (think of society’s reactions to girls in jeans verses boys in skirts) lesbians feel less uneasy in their bodies and less focused on appearance. [3] Nevertheless, it remains an enormously high statistic that cannot be dismissed.

It’s also been shown that body dissatisfaction is the most important factor in developing eating disorders in any population, regardless of sexual orientation. Small wonder, then, that a study of adolescents aged 12 to 20 revealed more than twice as much binge eating and nearly twice as much frequent dieting in gay men than straight men.[2]For more information about the effects of sexual orientation on eating disorder prevalence, as well as how gender identity may play a role, check out our very own Valerie Martin’s article on the topic here.

Although eating disorders are a common measure of body image dissatisfaction, they’re certainly not the only consequence. Negative body image has been repeatedly associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide or attempted suicide. A 2000 online study with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people revealed an association between negative body image and low levels of self-esteem, as well as higher levels of depression and higher reported levels of “fat-phobia” or prejudice against overweight people.[5]A similar study also reports that negative body image, specifically muscle and body fat dissatisfaction in gay men, is correlated not only with depression but also with social sensitivity, or an increased nervousness about being judged by others.

There are many, many other factors that may influence the mental health of an individual, beyond body dissatisfaction. However, the fact remains that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth (and adults) are significantly more likely to report depression and anxiety than their straight counterparts, and are 20-40% more likely to attempt or commit suicide. Sexual orientation, in of itself, does not cause eating disorders, depression, or any consequences of a negative body image. There is a whole range of factors that can lead to their onset, ranging from genetic predisposition to personal relationships to personality to traumatic life experiences, or any of these, or none. Still, cultural expectations of what we, as a generalized demographic, are “supposed” to look like run deep. This could be the “young, thin, muscular but not too built” gay man, or the supermodel-thin woman that even the more-liberal lesbian community cannot escape entirely, but whatever it is, it may be the final straw on a haystack of other risk factors that severely and negatively impact the internal life of an individual.

These statistics are inescapable. Destructive methods of conforming to traditional beauty standards and the debilitating mental consequences of those who (like all of us) cannot measure up are not phenomena that can be swept under the rug. It’s almost as though these subjugated groups (non-heterosexual people, women, etc.) are deliberately trying to take up the least amount of space possible in a social structure that does not make room for them, as if afraid of getting in the way of our mastodon-hunting counterparts.

More research is needed about the relationship between sexual orientation and body image, but stereotype-busting is a good place to start. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are not one-dimensional in any aspect of their lives, just as heterosexual people are not one-dimensional. Negative body image and the harmful effects that accompany it are not restricted to any sexual orientation, and forcing within the confines of stereotypes does no one any favors. Denying the lived experience of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community and their comfort within their bodies only exacerbates a problem that we must continue to explore and combat. Let’s strive to live in a world where our bodies, our sexual orientations, our desires, and our selves are not questioned, but simply accepted.

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[1] Hospers, Harm, and Anita Jansen. “Why Homosexuality is a Risk Factor for Eating Disorders in Males.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 24, No. 8, 2005. pp. 1188-1201.

[2] French, Simone, et al. “Sexual Orientation and Prevalence of Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Disordered Behaviors: A Population-Based Study of Adolescents.” International Journal of Eating Disorders, 9 March 1996. pp. 119-126.

[3] Siever, Michael. “Sexual Orientation and Gender as Factors in Socioculturally Acquired Vulnerability to Body Dissatisfaction and Eating Disorders.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 62, No. 2. 1994. pp. 252-260.

[4] Striegel-Moore, Ruth, Naomi Tucker, and Jeanette Hsu. “Body Image Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating in Lesbian College Students.” International Journal of Eating Disorders. Vol. 9, No. 5. 1990. pp. 493-500.

[5] Wrench, Jason, and Leslie Knapp. “The Effects of Body Image Perceptions and Soiocommunicative Orientations on Self-Esteem, Depression, and Identification and Involvement in the Gay Community.” Journal of Homosexuality Vol. 55, No. 3. 2008. pp.471-503.=

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Eating Disorders and LGBT: What’s the Connection? 

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Comments

  1. Interesting article! I think more studies should be done in order to establish a direct relationship between sexual orientation and one’s body image.

  2. This is a really interesting piece! Actually, I’ve noticed a correlation between my own sexuality and my body image as well, in a slightly different way. I’m asexual, and since I found out about asexuality two years ago I’ve felt so much more comfortable with my body and my appearance. I think the main reason for it is the fact that I don’t feel like I have to look or act sexy anymore, because I’ve realised I’m not out there to actually attract anyone with my looks. However, I did a bit of a survey last year among asexual people, and many of us still feel a lot of pressure to be attractive. It just shows how pervasive that ideal is!

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