Associate Professor of Sociology
320 Washington Street
Easton, MA .
Graduate Student at San Diego State University
Acknowledgements Thank you to Meaghan Stiman for her assistance preparing the manuscript for publication.
In this article we explore lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual college-age women’s body image development within the context of their sexual identities. We conducted in-depth interviews with 28 women. Our analysis is situated within feminist constructionist scholarship, socio-cultural body image research, and existing research on body image and sexuality. This research extends the current body of knowledge by comparing body image satisfaction and dissatisfaction across sexual orientation, via descriptive qualitative data. We suggest women’s internationalization or rejection of dominant femininity, the availability of viable (validated) alternative femininities, and one’s place in subculture groups (as a mediator of dominant values) all converge to contribute to overall body image satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Moreover, through their largely unmitigated internalization of hegemonic femininity, the heterosexual participants experienced significantly more dissatisfaction than the lesbian and bisexual participants.
In this article we explore lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual college-age women’s body image development within the context of their sexual identities. Qualitative interviews allowed us to gain insight into the socio-cultural processes at play as these women construct and reconstruct their identities.
One of the issues with presenting our research is the relevance of several different but overlapping bodies of literature. We feel it is important to present this range of literature as a means of situating our research as well as our interpretation of our findings. Therefore, our literature review is divided into the following categories: Sexual Identity, Gender Identity, Body Image, Body Norms, Lesbian Subculture, Cultural Invisibility, and Minority-Status.
Identity involves a process of “self-definition” (Yarhouse, 2001, p. 334). Sexual identity is a broad term that is partially constituted by gender identity and sexual orientation. Sexual identity and gender identity emerge out of interlinked and ongoing processes. Drawing on Althof (2000, pp. 247-249). Yarhouse explains that sexual identity encompasses gender identity, object choice, and intention. Within this framework gender identity refers to a person’s sense of being male, female, or transgendered; object choice denotes sources of sexual attraction; and intention refers to how individualsresponds to their sexual impulses. Sexual identity can be thought of as a “self concept” used to organize one’s gender identity and sexual orientation (Cass, 1984). Diamond (2003) notes that, generally, these identities are labeled: “heterosexual,” “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual.”
Research shows that sexual orientation may evolve over one’s lifespan (Garnets, 2002; Kinnish, Strassberg, & Turner, 2005; Rust, 1993; Yarhouse, 2001).
From this perspective, individuals may experience transitions in sexual orientation throughout their lives. Sexual orientation is viewed as continuously evolving out of an individual’s sexual and emotional experiences, social interactions, and the influence of the cultural context. Such influences may work together to maintain sexual orientation or may precipitate subtle or not-so-subtle shifts in orientation. (Kinnish et al., 2005, p. 174)
Some studies have shown that gender is a stronger predictor of sexual behavior than is sexual orientation (Garnets, 2002; Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2000). It has been found that women tend to be more relationally-minded and men tend to be more physically and body-centered when concerning sexual attraction, whether homosexual or heterosexual (Garnets, 2002; Owens, Hughes, & Owens-Nicholson, 2003).
Gender Identity and the Cultural Construction of Femininity
“Sexual identity” needs to be situated within the context of gender identity. Gender is a contingent, culturally and historically specific social construction that provides femininity and masculinity scripts for the performance of gender (Glenn, 2000; Lorber, 1993; 2008; Marshall, 2008). Dominant (or hegemonic) femininity prescribes both appearance and behavior. Research shows significant socio-cultural pressures on women to be thin in contemporary society (Dworkin & Wachs, 2004; Ehrenreich & English, 1979; Ewen, 1976; Hansen, Reed, & Waters, 1986; Hartmann, 1976; Hesse-Biber, 1996, 2006; Hesse-Biber, Leavy, Quinn, & Zoino, 2006; Silverstein, 1984; Wolf, 1991). Women attempt to achieve this ideal through controlling their bodies (Hesse-Biber et al., 2006). In contemporary American society fat is equated with “a devaluation of the feminine” (Dworkin & Wachs, 2004, p. 611). There are also femininity norms regarding makeup and hair. Dellinger and Williams (1997) found institutional pressures on women to “appropriately” wear makeup as a means of establishing heterosexuality and credibility in the workplace. Long, young-looking hair is also a marker of hegemonic femininity. Koppelman (1996) suggests bald women or women with gray hair are subject to social punishments for defying female beauty norms.
The relationship between the dominant constructions of femininity and masculinity is one of polarization and exclusion. As with all social constructions, femininity is largely defined by what it excludes (Leavy, Gnong, & Ross, 2009). Pfohl (2008) writes: “the believability of the social constructions that lie inside the circle depends on what the circle expels to the outside. In this sense, social constructions are, at once, constituted and haunted by what they exclude” (pp. 645-646). In the case of dominant femininity, attributes culturally ascribed to masculinity are positioned in opposition to femininity. For example, research shows that female athletes often have to negotiate the perceived “dual identities” of “female” and “athlete” because athleticism is culturally coded as “masculine” (Evans, 2006; Krane, Choi, Baird, Aimar, & Kauer, 2004). In this regard, Evans (2006) suggests girls’ experiences with sports manifest in relation to the performance of femininity and the “fear of masculinization.” The polarization of femininity and masculinity, coupled with the appearance and behavior dictates of hegemonic femininity, are important aspects of the context in which women across sexual orientations develop their body images.
Gender identity plays an important role in body image development across other differences. Researchers have examined the influence of gender constructions on various aspects of body image including differences between “masculine” and “feminine” women in developing eating disorders (Lakkis, Ricciardelli, & Williams, 1999; Lancelot & Kaslow, 1994; Mahowald, 1992; Siever, 1994) and how body perception differs between men and women (Beren, Hayden, Wilfley, & Striegel-Moore, 1997; Marone, Iacoella, Cecchini, & Ravenna, 1998; Smith & Stillman, 2002).
Ludwig and Brownell (1999) compared the body image attitudes of lesbian and bisexual women with whether the individuals self-identified as feminine, masculine, or androgynous. The study used data gathered from anonymous surveys administered to 188 lesbian and bisexual women. Ludwig and Brownell found significant differences of body satisfaction levels between “masculine” and “feminine” women, and found “masculine” and “androgynous” women to have no significant difference in body image. “Feminine” women were more likely than either “masculine” or “androgynous” women to feel accepted by their friends and to use their bodies to attract attention from others. Despite this finding, overall, “masculine” and “androgynous” women reported higher body satisfaction rates than did “feminine women” (Ludwig & Brownell, 1999).
Taken as a body of literature, studies on body image differences between heterosexual and homosexual female samples have been inconclusive (Lakkis et al., 1999). However, many studies do indicate that sexual orientation affects a woman’s body image. Lakkis et al. quantitatively examined the relationship between body image and sexual orientation. Tests measuring Body Dissatisfaction, Drive for Thinness, Dietary Restraint, and Bulimia were administered to 266 male and female participants who identified as either heterosexual or homosexual. In this study, heterosexual women scored significantly higher in all these categories than homosexual women (Lakkis et al., 1999). Decreased body image among heterosexual women is supported by many other studies (Beren, Hayden, Wilfley, & Striegel-Moore, 1997; Bergeron & Senn, 1998; French, Story, Remafedi, Resnick, & Blum, 1996; Heffernan, 1994; Siever, 1994; Smith & Stillman, 2002; Striegel-Moore, Tucker, & Hsu, 1990).
Beren, Hayden, Wilfley, and Grilo (1996) administered tests to 72 heterosexual and 69 homosexual women that explored Body Dissatisfaction, Psychosocial Factors, and Affiliation with the Gay/Lesbian Community. The Body Dissatisfaction test scores were not significantly different between heterosexual and homosexual women, and the psychosocial factors, such as dieting and weight concern, also were similar. These findings are replicated in other recent research (Cogan, 2001; Epel, Spanakos, Kasl-Godley, & Brownell, 1996; Pitman, 2000; Share & Mintz, 2002). Researchers have hypothesized that heterosexual and homosexual women may be prone to different types of eating disorders and for different reasons (Cogan, 2001; Lakkis et al., 1999; Siever, 1994). This is because lesbians are affected by and vulnerable to different relevant social factors than are heterosexual women that influence the development of eating disorders (French et al., 1996; Lakkis et al, 1999; Lancelot & Kaslow, 1994; Pitman, 2000; Siever, 1994; Striegel-Moore et al., 1990). A meta-analytic review of the literature on sexual orientation and body image suggests that, overall, lesbians have higher body satisfaction but comparable levels of awareness of societal standards which lesbians do not reject outright (Morrison, Morrison, & Sager, 2004).
The majority of research on female body image and sexuality is quantitative. Therefore, our study contributes important qualitative data to our understanding of this topic.
Researchers have studied body norms for different groups based on gender and sexual orientation (French et al., 1996; Schneider, O’Leary, & Jenkins 1995; Siever, 1994), how body norms are formed by society (Bergeron & Senn, 1998; Pitman, 2000; Striegel-Moore et al., 1990), why certain body norms are formed and only apply to specific groups (Cogan, 2001), and why body norms differ from group to group (Beren et al., 1997; Bergeron & Senn, 1998).
A study by Cogan (2001) surveyed self-identified lesbian and bisexual women about exercise motivation and habits, body image, the potential effect of feminist attitudes on body image, body norms, and revealing one’s sexual orientation to family and friends (“coming out”). The study was intended to find out why lesbians may create confining norms within their own communities after resisting dominant beauty norms (Cogan, 2001). Cogan’s study found that over 90% of lesbians exercised for non-aesthetic reasons such as health, fitness, and pleasure. Very few women exercised to lose weight or to be more physically attractive. However, while the lesbians were very accepting of other women’s bodies, they were as critical as the heterosexual women of their own bodies. It is important, though, to consider the possibility that lesbian women may emphasize exercise for health versus appearance in order to appear less affected by the dominant patriarchal thin ideal. Qualitative research might be needed to explore these issues in great depth.
Research indicates that there are specific “codes of appearance” for the lesbian community (Cogan, 2001; Luzzatto & Gvion, 2004). These “codes” or norms are described “as a form of safety, to establish an identity, and to feel a sense of community, lesbians have established outward markers. These include such items as pinkie rings, Doc Martens, triangle earrings, and certain haircuts—lesbian beauty forms help us find each other” (Cogan, 2001, p. 29). Historically, these markers were a subtle way for lesbians to identify one another, but the frequency of their use has contributed to their development into a set of alternative beauty standards. Cogan’s study also revealed that “coming out” frequently marked the point where their internalized body and beauty norms started shifting from the norms of mainstream society to the alternative, but differently restrictive, lesbian community standards.
Several studies have examined the importance of socio-cultural factors in the etiology of eating disorders, which have resulted in mixed findings. Some studies purport that lesbian subculture downplays the importance of physical attractiveness, and thus can act as a buffer against many of the social pressures of the dominant culture (Ludwig & Brownell, 1999; Striegel-Moore et al., 1990). Therefore, same sex attractions among women and involvement in the lesbian community may lead to greater acceptance of one’s own body and may protect one from body dissatisfaction and eating disorders (Beren et al., 1997; Heffernan, 1994; Lakkis et al., 1999; Ludwig & Brownell, 1999; Siever, 1994). However, other research has found that lesbians and heterosexual women are far more similar with respect to their body esteem (Pitman, 2000; Striegel-Moore et al., 1990).
Although lesbian ideology rejects our culture’s narrowly defined ideal of female beauty and opposes the overemphasis placed on women’s physical attractiveness, such ideology may not be strong enough to enable lesbians to overcome already internalized cultural beliefs and values about female beauty (Striegel-Moore et al., 1990, p. 498).
Beren, Hayden, Wilfley, and Grilo (1996) found that there were no significant differences between lesbian and heterosexual women in body dissatisfaction or in related psychosocial factors. Further, some lesbians strive for or are attracted to the heterosexual standards of female beauty (Cogan, 2001; Pitman, 2000).
Some lesbians report that they do not adhere to heterosexual standards of female beauty; however, they “feel confined to a lesbian standard of beauty, one which is thin, physically fit, strong, well-dressed, and not too ‘femmy’” (Pitman, 2000, p. 59). In an in-depth interview study with 8 lesbians about body image and sexual identity, all 8 participants noted a desire to be “fit” (Salkin, Asher, & Chavinson Asher, 1999). Attempting to fit into the lesbian community and its beauty standards can lead to stress and body image dissatisfaction (Alexander & Clare, 2004). This indicates that lesbian women are faced with a wide range of competing, contradictory and at times interlocking beauty ideals from the dominant culture and lesbian subculture.
It may be that the pressure that lesbians experience as a result of being a part of a minority and stigmatized group negatively affects a number of psychosocial factors, including body dissatisfaction, and thus may offset the lesbian community’s more flexible norms about women’s bodies (Beren et al., 1996, p. 140).
Lesbians have a unique and conflicting range of experiences as a result of their minority status, including prevailing stereotypes which have different effects on attitudes and feelings about their bodies (Beren et al., 1997).
Whereas mainstream sources, such as women’s magazines and peer pressure seem to influence lesbian college students to value a thinner body ideal, sexual relationships with women encouraged acceptance of one’s body. Conflict between mainstream and lesbian values about the importance of weight and overall appearance was repeatedly voiced by the respondents (Beren et al., 1997, p. 432).
This overall conflict may be yet another source of stress that cultivates body dissatisfaction in some lesbian women.
The relationship between sexual orientation, cultural visibility and body image is an under researched area, potentially important to our understanding of body image and sexual identity. Studies have shown that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) persons are highly underrepresented in mainstream culture (Galliher, Rostosky, & Hughes, 2004; Hubbard & De Welde, 2003; Lasser & Tharinger, 2003; Nicholas, 2004). GLBT people may employ different strategies to compensate for their cultural invisibility. Because identifying or concealing one’s homosexual identity may be part of a survival process (as both protection against homophobia and a dating tool), there may be an added significance placed on the bodies of GLBT individuals in order for them to signal or conceal sexual identity. One study with 20 lesbian participants suggests that because lesbians live within competing socio-cultural contexts (dominant culture and lesbian subculture) they may be unsure about how to feel about their bodies and how to talk with others about this issue (Kelly, 2007). Kelly (2007) labels this phenomenon “body silence.”
As a result of their invisibility, members of sexual minorities are at a greater psychosocial risk overall as they “are not readily supported in their sexual identity development and often have to choose between maintaining attachments to family and peers and claiming a stigmatized identity” (Rostosky, Owens, Zimmerman & Riggle, 2003, p. 743). GLBT individuals experience stress as a result of prejudice and discrimination (Lewis, Derlega, Griffin, & Krowinski, 2003, p. 717). One study shows that this additional dimension of stress was a factor in the self-injurious behavior of lesbian and bisexual women (Alexander & Clare, 2004).
For this study we conducted in-depth interviews (Berg, 2001; Weiss, 1994) with 28 college-age women (ranging from 18-22) in the northeast in order to learn about their body image within the context of their sexual and gender identities. We employed convenience sampling, soliciting local college students on their campuses and seeking participants via personal networks. Our sample consisted of 18 participants that identified as heterosexual, 8 participants that identified as lesbian, and 2 who identified as bisexual. Given the predominance of quantitative research on this topic, we have sacrificed breadth in favor of depth. All of the interviewees signed informed consent forms indicating that their participation was voluntary, confidential, could be stopped at any time, and would be used for scholarly purposes only. Identifying information was removed from the transcripts and each participant was assigned a number.
Prior to the in-depth interviews we constructed an interview guide with broad categories or “lines of inquiry” (Weiss, 1994) to cover in each interview as well as specific open-ended questions listed under each category. Weiss (1994) refers to “lines of inquiry” as general lists of topics the researcher would like to learn about and pursue with the participant. The main categories were: Gender, Appearance, Diet, Exercise, Sexuality, Peers, Family/Community, and Romantic Relationships/Dating. An open-ended, unstructured approach was employed. The intent was to make certain that all of the major categories within the interview guide were covered in any order that flowed in a particular interview. In future research we would take the additional step of soliciting feedback from experts to help establish content validity.
Working from a feminist epistemological and theoretical framework, we wanted to share authority over the process with our participants. Therefore, our unstructured, organic approach to the interviews developed in accord with our feminist grounding. Anderson and Jack (1991) suggest that feminist interviewers must “shed agendas” in order to listen for meaning because women often “mute” themselves. Similarly, Bailey (2007) posits that as members of a marginalized group, women often normalize their experiences of oppression. In this regard, Anderson and Jack write:
A woman’s discussion of her life may combine two separate, often conflicting perspectives: one framed in concepts and values that reflect men’s dominant position in the culture, and one informed by the more immediate realities of a woman’s personal experience. Where experience does not “fit” dominant meanings, alternative concepts may not readily be available. Hence, inadvertently, women often mute their own thoughts and feelings when they try to describe their lives in the familiar and publicly acceptable terms of prevailing concepts and conventions. To hear women’s perspectives accurately, we have to listen in stereo receiving both the dominant and muted channels clearly and tuning into them carefully to understand the relationship between them (1991, p. 11).
Interviewing women regarding their body image and sexuality therefore requires active listening on multiple levels, which we felt could be best accomplished via an unstructured approach to the interviews. After transcribing the in-depth interviews we coded the interview data. Coding allows for categories, themes, patterns, and concepts to emerge (Saldana, 2009). Coding may also be the link between collecting data and developing a theory to explain these data (Hesse-Biber, Howling, Leavy, & Lovejoy, 2004). We coded the data by hand, conceptualizing the analysis and interpretation process as a craft (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998) and fully immersing ourselves in the data. Through this process major themes emerged.
Overall, our heterosexual research participants were significantly dissatisfied with various aspects of their bodies while the lesbian and bisexual participants were largely satisfied with and accepting of their bodies.
Body Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction among the Heterosexual Interviewees
When asked in an open-ended format what, if anything, they didn’t like about themselves, the heterosexual women talked extensively about numerous features of their bodies, ranging from stomachs and thighs to ears, noses, height, and most frequently weight. One woman listed some of her concerns as follows:
I don’t like my face because my skin is really bad…I have really big ears, my ear lobes are really big…I’m like short and kinda chubby…it’s just that whenever I gain weight I’m not tall so it doesn’t really have anywhere to go, so I’m chubby and I don’t like that. Um, that’s my biggest problem, I feel like I am overweight.
Thirteen of the heterosexual women interviewed were significantly dissatisfied with the shape and/or size of their bodies, specifically stating that certain parts were too “large,” and that largeness was unattractive. Although the majority of women felt that being “too skinny” was considered unappealing, most still aspired to a thin beauty ideal which they reported was communicated to them from the media, family, and peers. One woman talked about her arms and thighs: “I just don’t like that I have big arms…I have really big thighs, um, you know…I have a wide butt.” Another woman expressed similar dissatisfactions: “…and I mean yeah I look in the mirror and I’m like ‘man, I wish my ass was smaller, I wish my waist was smaller’.” Many women had strong feelings about the parts of their body that displeased them, and often evoked the word “hate” when referring to their perceived deficiencies. One woman fervently stated: “I have fat thighs!! I hate it! And I think, I feel like no matter how long I go to the gym, I’m never gonna have skinny thighs. That just pisses me off.” Other women talked about how they “hated” their legs or their “gut.”
The heterosexual participants negatively regarded muscular arms and legs, regardless of athletic status. One woman described her unhappiness with her muscles, even though they were beneficial assets in her softball career.
“…some people would make comments as to my muscles, like I’ve always had big muscles, I’ve played softball my whole life and so I just have big arm muscles and people would comment on it and I’d be very self conscious about it and I’ve always hated my muscles because of that.”
She further stated: “I know that I’m never going to be a skinny little girl. My bone structure, I know that’s not the way it is, but I’m not happy with the way my body is…” Although this woman acknowledged that her body shape is natural for her, her dissatisfaction remains.
Many of the participants explained that they exercise to lose weight or to stay thin.
“…so I go to the gym…I try to go three or four times a week, because I like to feel like I can keep my body in check so I do not gain a lot of weight.”
“So why do you go to the gym overall?
To stay thin.
“Okay, how do you feel after going to they gym? Like when you’re done with your workout how do you feel?
I feel awesome, I love it. And I feel guilty when I don’t get to go for a day. Like I feel, I look in the mirror and I’m like ugh ‘I’m getting fat again’ because I don’t go to the gym for like a day…”
Only in one area of the body was largeness desired: breasts. Although the heterosexual women interviewed generally expressed dissatisfaction with bigger parts of their bodies, 5 women felt further dissatisfaction arising from the perceived relative smallness of their breasts. One woman asserted: “I wish my boobs were bigger!” Another woman simultaneously spoke about wanting to lose weight and wanting larger breasts.
“Well I would like to lose like ten pounds (laughs), but I’m pretty much okay. You know what? I would really enjoy it if I had bigger boobs…”
When asked why this was, she replied: “I just don’t feel like I have the ideal boobs.” She went on to explain where she derived her concept of ideal breasts:
“men’s portrayal of what they like, cause I’d say women if they had to say what they like, they’d like smaller boobs, because bigger boobs cause problems, you know, when you exercise they are all jiggly or whatnot. So I would have to say it’s definitely a male want.”
A theme throughout the heterosexual interviews was that the beauty ideal of thinness and big breasts was desired because it was viewed as a way to attract men.
“I was always a little overweight so I always wanted to be skinnier like the skinny girl who like, so I could get a boy like that.
And that’s how you figured, is that how you, you realized that the only way to get a boy was to look like them?
Not exactly like them, but…
“So you desire to have skinny thighs?
Um , I don’t know. That’s a good question! I don’t know, but I mean I guess because that is what is seen as attractive by guys. And who doesn’t want to be seen as attractive by guys?”
Our participants understanding of the social rewards attached to adhering to femininity appearance norms, particularly with respect to attaining heterosexual relationships, is supported by research that indicates men are more concerned with physical attractiveness in partners than women (Bergeron & Senn, 1998; Diamond, 2003; Siever, 1994). However, it is also important to note that the body type heterosexual men report as the most desirable is not as thin as the hyper-thin body type heterosexual women assume they find attractive(Hesse-Biber, 2006).
Body Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction among the Homosexual and Bisexual Interviewees
The lesbian and bisexual participants revealed a greater overall comfort with and acceptance of their varied body types. One woman discussed her feelings about her body similarly to many of these interviewees.
“I am never going to be a twig, and I have accepted that, and I am okay with that, and I like it, ya know, and I am never, ya know, you can’t necessarily change everything about yourself, and I am very accepting of that.”
When asked, in an open-ended format, what she liked about herself another participant replied:
“Do you have a few hours? It’s a long list! Physically, I just like my body because I am comfortable with it… I don’t have a part of me or like people would say ‘my stomach’ or ‘my hands’ or whatever, no I am pretty okay with everything.”
Another participant expressed similar feelings:
“When I sort of accepted that my body was okay the way it was, I could let go of a lot of those other things… I was afraid people wouldn’t like me cuz I was fat and now I’m like if someone doesn’t like me because of the size of my body, well that’s their loss.”
A common theme found throughout the interviews was that the lesbian and bisexual women’s overall greater self-acceptance results, in part, from experiencing acceptance from the lesbian community or family and friends. One woman who had high body satisfaction discussed this as follows:
“I think that the lesbian world is very accepting to a lot of different types of women, more so than the straight society is, because there are so many different types, that for some reason, gay women are more accepting of that I guess.”
She went on to note the value of being immersed in an open and accepting environment.
“Well I think that I was really fortunate to go to the college that I did…it was very accepting of lesbians….it is a very, very open location, an open town, ya know there are lots of opportunities, lots of gay clubs in the area, there are, ya know, things like that….and it really, really made it easy for me to come out and be open about things, and not necessarily have as much of a problem as somebody who goes to a school that is completely taboo about gay culture stuff.”
A bisexual woman spoke about joining a PRIDE group at her college, and how the feeling of acceptance she experienced as a result transformed her into a more confident and self-accepting person.
“…it was something that I really wanted, like I really needed a weekly thing where I could just be myself, and be in a closed off room, where everybody was just cool with whatever I was. So, that was really important to me. Then sophomore year…I got more involved, and I got more confident in myself and in the organization; now when I go to the meetings it is I don’t care who is there, who is not there, I don’t care what I look like…I feel so comfortable with it now, and I really made it my own thing."
The lesbian and bisexual interviewees focused on health and “feeling good” as the most prominent body issues (as opposed to physical appearance or adherence to beauty ideals). One participant said:
“I don’t care how I look, I don’t care what size pants I fit into, I don’t care…I mean I walk around in t-shirts all day so I don’t care really what I look like, as long as I feel good and healthy.”
Two other participants noted the following:
“It’s more about how I am treating my body. And my health, rather than how I look to other people.”
“I’m fine with being a size 10 or 12, I’m happy and I’m healthy. And my body seems to like this weight…”
Importantly, in direct contrast to the heterosexual women, the lesbian and bisexual women embraced muscle, strength, and bigger bodies as acceptable and sometimes ideal body types.
One woman explained:
“I can look at a picture of a really thin person in a magazine and think, okay, good for them, but ya know, that’s not my body type, that’s not who I am. And I am okay with that. And I think part of that has to do with the fact that I am an athlete, and I’m comfortable with having a bigger body and being stronger and more muscular.”
Another woman, also an athlete, described what she liked about her body:
“I have strong legs, I like my calves. I do, I’m not gonna lie. I’m a catcher, I’ve got like the strong quads, you know, the calves… They are muscles that help me do what I do, like if I didn’t have strong legs how could I catch?”
Also in contrast to heterosexual women, many of the lesbian and bisexual women valued smaller breasts, and were dissatisfied if they perceived their breasts as large. When one woman was asked what she did not like about herself, she responded:
“I don’t like my boobs…they’re too big! I wear like a 36 D and I’d be much happier with a B…women get comments on their boobs all the time, I don’t like people staring at my boobs.”
Another participant commented on other practical disadvantages of having larger breasts.
“The chest gets in the way…it doesn’t help with running and doing that whole athletic thing, and it’s hard to find a bra.”
The interviewees routinely expressed attraction to other women who embraced the ideals that they themselves found to be important: athleticism, strength, health, naturalness, comfort within their bodies, and personality.
“I really, really love athletic body types. I hate skinny girls, you know those girls in the club that have their pants around their ankles, I hate them. And not that I hate them because I want to be them, I’m just not attracted to that at all. If I wanted to date a twig, I’d date a twig, you know? I really love girls that look like they love their bodies…something where they look healthy and well fed and happy.”
“…the ideal body image? Not like what maybe the media’s ideal body image is. You gotta like have some meat, you gotta be healthy!... When I have fun with someone then I don’t care what people look like…”
“…none of them were very, really make-up wearing women. They all sort of held these sort of leadership positions…I’m attracted to women who can be strong….I am attracted to women who break the gender stereotype…”
Eight of the lesbian and bisexual women did not highly regard the dominant cultural beauty norm of thinness or big breasts, or even a specific appearance construct. Many participants offered their own explanations for why lesbian and bisexual women may not be as invested in or affected by the mass media generated beauty ideal. A common conception was the idea of lesbians and bisexual women as removed from the dominant sexuality, and thus protected from its norms and restrictions in this regard. One woman explained her view as follows:
“I would say in terms of the lesbian community, which is a huge generalization, [there is] less emphasis on having the right body shape or size. That has sort of been my experience. If you go to a lesbian function, you’ll see a lot more women with different body sizes, bigger, smaller, all ranges in between…I think part of that is that you’re not buying into a lot of the cultural stuff. And a lot of thin women think they need to be thin to get a guy. I mean I think a lot of it, to feel good about themselves they need to be thin, but I think a lot of it is that message that you have to be thin to get a boyfriend. So and I think in the lesbian community, that’s not, ya know you don’t get that message as strongly. Tons of women who are bigger have partners. So it’s not such a strong issue, I think.”
Other participants had similar explanations:
“It’s interesting, for a lot of lesbians it is about, it’s sort of bucking the traditional feminine stereotype of the high heels, hose, makeup sort of camouflaging yourself to fit or to please men. To look the way that the patriarchal society wants you to look. So it’s sort of like rebelling against that and saying, we embrace ourselves just the way we are…I’ve dated those women who find heavy women very unattractive, and I’ve dated [women] who don’t, and I’ve dated heavy women and thin women, I tend to think it might be a generalization, but lesbians because they are more rejecting of the patriarchy that creates this image that women have to adhere too, that they could be more comfortable in their bodies.”
“…I think that I have come up with the conclusion that gay women don’t feel as much pressure because they identify with other women, they know what women want so to speak. They know that women aren’t necessarily going to care if they have like, some extra fat around their stomach. Whereas, I think when a woman is trying to be with a man, they have a harder time identifying with what a man exactly wants. And they assume, which is one of the worst things you can do in any situation, that men want that perfect body that they see in the magazines and they see on TV and in the movies, so they are constantly like striving and putting pressure on themselves to be like that, and to eat better, and to exercise all the time and really get that ‘perfect body’. Whereas, gay women, I don’t think the pressure is on them, because they are going to be with other women, who they identify way better with than they could ever identify with a man. And I really think that is what it comes down to. I don’t think that there is as much pressure, generally speaking for a gay woman.”
One participant suggested (to another gay woman) how they both are outside of the dominant group and thus are not affected by its pressures:
“…you and I come from a completely different perspective than any of our [heterosexual] friends…in terms of when we are around straight girls we have a completely different mindset than they do. And I just think the essence of it is you and I are very different in how we think about these things, and I think that you and I see it, because we are outside of it. I mean you and I go out at night and we’re not trying to get a guy’s phone number…”
A bisexual interviewee explained her experience with facing pressures from both the dominant and minority cultures, and how the dominant culture’s pressures are greater.
“The whole straight, female image, puts pressure on me in the sense that in my everyday life, that puts more pressure on me. When I am going to class, or when I am walking around campus, I am more conscious of how males are looking at me, and if I am looking attractive to them. But if I am going to a PRIDE meeting or a club or a bar where I know there will be other gay women there, I am very conscious of how the women will see me, and if they will think I am attractive. But definitely in my everyday life, I feel more pressure to look good to men. Because I feel like with women, they understand me more, and the women that I would like would be so cool that they wouldn’t care how I dressed…I feel like guys are less understanding, straight guys are far less understanding of how you look, or how you feel that day. But if I am with a girl and I am like, oh I feel like shit today and I didn’t feel like putting anything on then they would be totally fine with how I looked.”
Of note, some women cited the experience of “coming out” as a primary factor for why they are not as affected by mainstream beauty norms. They suggested that going through this process forced them to become more self-accepting, comfortable, and confident in themselves than the average heterosexual woman, which in turn provided them with strength to step outside of, overlook, and overcome constraining cultural ideals. This supports research that suggests “the closet” is a productive space in which identity emerges (Seidman, Meeks & Traschen, 2004).
“I think being gay has a lot to do with my identity…it’s just what has made me who I am. And I think, I think seeing, making me see, a lot of things that otherwise I never would have seen…I don’t think that people really get a good idea of that perspective until you’re there, until you are forced to be like…Okay it’s either I’m going to figure out who I am and be okay with it, or I’m going to listen to everyone else who says I shouldn’t be okay with it. And I don’t think a lot of people are forced into that. Ya know they don’t, so they kind of depend on what other people think of them. And I think it’s made me very independent minded and I’m a strong willed person who believes in what I believe in, and I’m going to fight for it.”
“I find it, in the gay community, it’s so different than in the straight community. I just find that because we’ve had to go through this huge, I don’t want to say coming out, but because we had to come to this self realization…because you have had to come to such a conclusion about yourself and you have to know yourself so well, that you can’t help but be more comfortable in how you look and how you are and how you feel, than I think than the equivalent straight girl. Like when else do you have to sit down and analyze who you are as a person and what you like, what you don’t like, what you are happy with, what you are not happy with, what you want to change, what you love about yourself, and then come to the point when you accept it, to the point where you’re like I am different and this is why I’m different, but I’m still fucking cool. You know, and this is why I am cool. When else do you get that…”
Research comparing body image development among Caucasian and African-American females has similarly indicated that African-American girls that have learned strategies for dealing with racism are more likely to reject the dominant white beauty ideal (Hesse-Biber et al. 2005). Further, African-American culture places less emphasis on thinness and research notes that African-American females have higher body satisfaction than their Caucasian counterparts (Greenberg & LaPorte, 1996; Harris, 1995; Owens et al, 2003; Powell & Kahn, 1995). This suggests that variant cultural values may provide some insulation from the dominant hyper-thin construct (Owens et al. 2003). We need to be careful how we make sense of these data as to not replicate oppressive social science that inadvertently assumes minority-status “protects” women, further rendering invisible the complex contexts in which identity issues emerge and/or essentializing difference. There is nonetheless evidence that variance in cultural norms and cultural visibility factor into women’s self concept including their body image.
This study investigates body image within the context of sexual identities. Our heterosexual participants experienced significantly more body dissatisfaction due to their reliance on hegemonic femininity and their desire to attract males. As noted in the literature review, some scholarship has shown that women who self-identify as “feminine” experience the most body dissatisfaction regardless of sexual orientation. Complicating previous research our sample included bisexual women who noted “more pressure” with respect to appearance when attracting males as opposed to females (which is further reinforced by our lesbian participants noting high levels of acceptance with respect to other women’s bodies).
Our research suggests that sexual identity plays a significant role in body image for women. Based on our interview data we conclude that three factors converge to contribute to overall body satisfaction and dissatisfaction: 1) the internalization/rejection of dominant femininity, 2) the availability of validated alternate femininities (that do not preclude dating/partnering), and 3) one’s place within a subculture as a mediator of dominant beauty norms and values.
Overwhelmingly, the heterosexual participants had accepted the dominant construction of femininity and its prescribed beauty ideal as the only legitimized enactment of femininity, regardless of athletic status and even personal preferences. Most notably the women wanted to be thinner and viewed musculature as anti-feminine. The participants viewed adherence to dominant femininity as necessary for procuring dating opportunities.
The lesbian and bisexual participants differed greatly from the heterosexual women, noting high levels of body acceptance. Overall, several interrelated points emerge from the data.
First, these women live both inside and outside of the dominant culture. As such, they understand the dominant construction of femininity; however, it is mediated by both their feelings of exclusion from it and by the availability of viable alternate “lesbian” femininities, that do not preclude (and may foster) dating opportunities. The lesbian ideal emphasizes “fitness” with respect to “health” and “athleticism” as opposed to thinness for beauty purposes. Therefore, musculature is valued as are smaller (natural) breasts (which are less prohibitive of athletic activity).
Second, due to their immersion in both dominant culture and a subculture, these participants developed a “double consciousness” in which they negotiated the appearance values of two cultural groups, with competing and contradictory body norms (see Du Bois, 1903 for a discussion of “double consciousness”).
Third, inclusion in specific subculture groups at the community level, such as PRIDE, served as a mediator of dominant femininity and provided a supportive environment in which women came to develop self-acceptance. This indicates the importance of supportive environments, a subject that could be explored at greater length in future research.
The inclusion of bisexual women in our research also has implications for future research. These data suggest dating issues are paramount with respect to body image. The bisexual participants noted more pressure to conform to ideal femininity for men than for women. This means that the same woman experiences different degrees of body pressure based on whether potential dating partners are male or female. Future research with larger samples of bisexual women is needed to further explore questions including but not limited to: Why do bisexual women feel more body pressure when dating men? To what extent is this linked to their perception of males’ femininity ideals? Why doesn’t their body acceptance when in lesbian relationships carry over into heterosexual relationships? Addressing these questions may shed light onto the contingent nature of body image and identity as it intersects with gender performance.
Beyond the limitations inherent with a small sample size (even more so with respect to the bisexual participants), there are other limitations to this study, which should be noted. First, we did not systematically ascertain demographic information from the participants regarding their ethnic/racial backgrounds. This was an oversight. Second, we did not explicitly ask all of the participants about their level of athletic involvement. This omission could have serious implications with respect to our findings as if the lesbian and bisexual participants were also more athletic it could influence how they view their bodies. Third, there is the issue of research participants doing gender and doing sexual orientation. There is no way to determine how the performance of gender and/or sexual orientation influenced participant responses. For example, as noted earlier the lesbians’ emphasis on “fitness” over “appearance” may be part of the performance of sexual identity. Fourth, the feminist sociological perspective we have brought to bear on the project may have affected participant responses during the interviews as well as later data interpretation in unseen ways. It is possible participant responses were shaped, in part, by their assumptions about what their researchers “wanted” to hear. Similarly, during interpretation we may have seen what we “expected” to see. Despite these limitations, we hope this research will be useful in the construction of future studies.
We suggest in the future researchers gather data about participant body type, level of athleticism, race/ethnicity, and other interviewee data that might be useful during data analysis and interpretation. We also suggest researchers separate lesbian and bisexual participants during analysis and interpretation.
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