I’ve spent a lot of hours during my doctorate degree mulling over women and body image. The conventional American story is disheartening: young girls learn to hate their bodies at a very early age, largely due to narrow images of women in mainstream media and strained gender politics. Yet, many women escape this fate. The women who two-step around the trappings of body shame and hatred fascinate me most of all. What allows a woman to love her body even if it deviates from the runway model ideal? Or even better, precisely because it deviates from that ideal?
In my own experience navigating queer spaces and communities, the fiercest body pride warriors have been lesbian, bisexual, and queer identified women. In gay bars, burlesque shows, and pride marches, I’ve witnessed queer women reveling in and celebrating bodies of every size and shape. Discovering this body-loving version of womanhood was a revelation to me back when I was a 22 year old, newly minted bisexual. Many other queer women have shared with me similar sentiments, thus inspiring the academic in me to try to study this phenomenon.
Using data from the Michigan Smoking and Sexuality Survey (called M-SASS for short), I explored some of these questions through quantitative web-survey data. M-SASS is a community based sample of 232 sexual minority (i.e., lesbian, bisexual, queer, etc.) women residing in the state of Michigan. I designed an analysis to examine what in sexual minority women’s lives most closely relate to their body image (or body esteem). I was fortunate enough to get to share the results of this study in two different forums: the 2013 National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Cincinnati, OH on November 8th and the 2013 Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA on November 15th.
To frame my project, I focused on the concept of heteronormativity. Heteronormativity refers to the social order where heterosexuality is thought to be the only normal sexual identity, and by extension all queer identities are socially deviant (Jackson, 2006). Within a heteronormative culture, men and women are thought to possess mutually exclusive gender roles which force them to rely on one another for survival (Jackson, 2006; Rubin, 1975).
What does heteronormativity have to do with body image? If we consider gender through the lens of heternormativity, queer women may be opting out of more than just sexual and romantic relationship with men through their sexual identities. By rejecting heterosexuality, queer women may also in essence reject social expectations of women in our culture—one of those social expectations is the pressure for women to obtain a very specific body type. Potentially, being a queer woman may provide women with an escape hatch from body shame. Social science research on the coming out process in women supports this theory. For example, many women proclaim to feel less invested in femininity, body size, or physical appearance after coming out (Krakaeur & Rose, 2002; Striepe & Tolman, 2000).
Informed by this idea of heteronormativity, I centered my research study and on sexual minority women and body image on two concepts: (1) women’s sense of themselves as masculine or feminine, since gender roles may be related to better body image, and (2) women’s participation in the LGBTQ community, since women might possibly escape heteronormativity and learn to feel more positively about their bodies through the LGBTQ community.
The results of this study were revealing. Women who reported more connection to the LGBTQ community did report better body image. Masculine and feminine identified women did not differ in their body image; however gender role (masculine or feminine) did alter the relationship between connection to the LGBT community and body image. For masculine-identified women, LGBTQ community connection was strongly related to better body image. For feminine-identified women, connection to the LGBTQ community did not relate as strongly to positive body image.
These findings suggest that the LGBTQ community connections may support women in moving away from some of the trappings of heteronormative gender roles. Yet, this boost is not felt equally by all queer women. This leaves the question of why? Why are masculine-identified women finding a stronger relationship between connection to the LGBTQ community and a positive body image? I have a few hunches: (1) the LGBTQ community may provide more affirmation to masculine than feminine identified women (i.e., femme invisibility), or alternatively, (2) the LGBTQ community may be one of the few places masculine-identified women can find validation for their identities, thus their connection to the community more directly influences beliefs about themselves.
By zeroing in on queer women’s experiences of body image in this study, a bigger picture of how women come to consider their bodies emerges. A woman’s pride in her body may be the loudest and proudest when there’s a community chorus standing behind her in that feeling.
Contributing authors: Sara I. McClelland, PhD ; José Arturo Bauermeister, MPH, PhD
Jackson, S. (2006). Gender, sexuality and heterosexuality: The complexity (and limits) of heteronormativity. Feminist Theory, 7, 105–121.
Krakauer, I. D., & Rose, S. M. (2002). The Impact of Group Membership on Lesbians’ Physical Appearance. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 6(1), 31–43. doi:10.1300/J155v06n01_04
Rubin, G. (1975). The traffic of women: Notes on the ‘political economy’ of sex. In R. Reiter (Ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Woman (pp. 157-185). New York: Monthly Review Press.
Striepe, M. I., & Tolman, D. L. (2003). Mom, dad, I’m straight: The coming out of gender ideologies in adolescent sexual-identity development. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 32(4), 523–30.