BODY IMAGE AND LESBIANS
Body image is emerging as a serious health concern in the gay male community. However, research into lesbians and body image has produced confusing results with no clear indication of whether or not there are emerging issues to focus on. Regardless of the outcome of these studies, however, lesbians are not free from societal pressures to be thin or to aspire towards an ideal body type. This pamphlet outlines some of the preliminary findings of studies surrounding lesbians and body image.
Pressures Around Body Image
Some studies claim that lesbians place less importance on weight and appearance in determining attractiveness, which they attribute to feminism and the reduced need to seek approval from men. This appears to be supported by the fact that gay men and heterosexual women are among the most prone to developing eating disorders and body image difficulties. In a few studies that have looked at perceived body weight and level of fitness, lesbians more accurately perceived their weight and fitness compared to heterosexual women. As well, lesbians seem to be heavier and view the ideal weight for women to be higher than do heterosexual women.
Eating disorders are not just about food, but also about other aspects of a person’s life. For instance, eating disorders may develop as a means of coping with stress, low self-esteem, or interpersonal conflicts. The following are two examples of common eating disorders:
Anorexia nervosa – a complex eating disorder characterized by refusal to maintain a healthy body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. Thoughts about dieting, food, and body may take of most of an anorexic person’s day. Common symptoms include: dieting despite being thin; obsession with calories, fat, and nutrition; pretending to eat or lying about eating; preoccupation with food; and strange or secretive food rituals.
Bulimia Nervosa – an eating disorder characterized by frequent bouts of binge eating, followed by frantic efforts to avoid gaining weight. Doesn’t necessarily involve physically eliminating the food from your body by throwing up or using laxatives; making up for binges by fasting, excessive exercise, or going on crash diets also qualifies as bulimia.
Historically, it has been difficult to determine whether lesbians suffer from anorexia and bulimia at different rates than do heterosexual women. One 2008 study claims that there is little evidence to support major differences in bodily satisfaction between heterosexual women and lesbians; however, another 2010 study notes that lesbian women are faced with a range of competing, contradictory beautiful ideals from dominant culture and a lesbian subculture that emphasizes fitness—potentially making them more vulnerable to body dissatisfaction. When looking at binge eating studies specifically, though, it has been indicated that lesbians are more likely to engage in binge-eating and purging than their heterosexual peers, or to have similar rates.
It has been argued that gender roles and gender identification are better indicators of body image issues and eating disorders than sexual orientation. Regardless of your biological sex, individuals who identify as feminine have a greater prevalence of eating disorders than do people who identify as masculine. Several studies have been conducted that examine this theory with mixed results that both support and discredit gender roles as an indicator of body image issues.
Health and Body Image
There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good and to be in good health. Body concerns only become unhealthy when the need to change your appearance begins to interfere with or undermine your social relationships and your performance at school or work or to create emotional distress (anxiety and depression) and/or physical health problems.
Some Steps to Developing a Healthier Body Image:
- Avoid buying health, fitness, and fashion magazines that encourage unhealthy ideals. Love your body, not theirs!
- Recognize that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes. There is no one “right” body size.
- Remind yourself that your body size, shape, or weight does not determine your worth as a person or your identity as a lesbian.
- Be aware of the negative messages you tell yourself about your appearance; replace these messages with more positive ones (i.e. “I am enough just the way I am”).
- Focus on qualities in yourself that you like that are not related to your appearance.
- Find friends who are not overly concerned with weight or appearance; if you trust them, feel free to talk through your body concerns with them.
- Look critically at the ads that push the “body perfect” message. Work towards a healthy body instead of a “perfect” body.
- Demonstrate respect for women who possess body types or who display personality traits that do not meet cultural standards for beauty.
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Student Counseling Services
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University of Saskatchewan
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Phone: 306.966.4920 Fax: 306.966.7059
USSU Pride Centre
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BridgePoint Center for Eating Disorders
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