Womanhood, Body Image, and the LGBTQ Community
Womanhood is a minefield. You're expected to juggle friendship, family, love, sex, and work, while remaining beautiful, sexy, and thin. You need to balance a sea of contradictory expectations gracefully. The pressure of living up to society's impossibly high standards can take a massive toll on self-esteem.
A study conducted by researcher Wiebke Bleidorn and her colleagues found that men have higher self-esteem than women worldwide. This gap begins in adolescence and continues into adulthood. This difference is even more pronounced in individualist countries like the U.S.
If culture has such a significant impact on self-confidence, how does LGBTQ culture measure up? I asked five LGBTQ women some questions about their body image and self-esteem.
Lo R. expressed that constantly seeing skinny girls in the media has been a major contributing factor to her disordered eating and body image issues. The saturation of 'perfect' bodies, whether they're skinny or thick, in the media is a major trigger for eating disorders.
The National Eating Disorders Association says that at as early as age 12 gay, lesbian and bisexual children "may be at a higher risk of binge-eating and purging than their heterosexual peers." LGBTQ people are at a higher risk of body image issues and eating disorders partly because of a lack of representation. Popular media teaches us how the world works and where we fit in it. If people have access to representation, they're less likely to feel that there's something inherently wrong with them.
Even LGBTQ media still has a long way to go as far as body positivity. Ray V. brought up Boo from Orange is the New Black. She wanted to like her: she's a fat butch lesbian after all. But it turns out she's predatory. Additionally, Lo R. explained that in the book Love, Simon Leah was fat, but she was played by a thin actress in the movie.
Instead of looking to our media for representation, we can look inward. Accepting who you are can significantly improve your confidence. You are more than the sum of your body parts. Instead of focusing on your physical features, remember that you are a unique individual with a range of special characteristics.
Personally, embracing my lesbianism has been incredibly freeing. I felt a massive set of expectation lifted from my shoulders. I no longer felt the need to fit into the extremely narrow mold of womanhood that is presented in our heteronormative society. Everybody I spoke with felt that embracing their gender and sexuality has affected their self-esteem in one way or another.
Embracing her identity as a femme lesbian has made Lo R. less worried about her body shape and more focused on her style. Jordan L. thinks that excepting their sexuality has positively affected their self-esteem, while their embracing gender is more of a mixed bag because " I'm non-binary and sometimes parts of my body contribute to dysphoria.” Ray V. said that "there is something to be said for seeing the physical qualities you see in yourself in someone else and finding them attractive."
Having a support system is an important aspect of maintaining your self-confidence, and where better to look for this support than within our own community? Karen Heffernan's 1996 study, "Eating Disorders and Weight Concern Among Lesbians," found that lesbians are not immune "from the effects of not meeting societal ideals of thinness."
Don't worry! There is good news!
She did find that the more active lesbians were within the LGBTQ community, the less concerned they were about their weight. Likewise, involvement in the LGBTQ community has had a positive impact on the self-esteem of everyone I spoke to.
Abi B said that more she's gotten involved in the LGBTQ community, the more her body image and self-esteem have improved. Jordan L. thinks that their involvement "helps put body image into perspective, especially hearing from other LGBT people, particularly trans people, how their body image affects them." Ray V expressed that fat women ("especially fat women of color who have always been the most radical champions of body acceptance") taught her that she was worthy of existing and being loved.
Accepting your body is a deeply personal experience. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for body confidence. However, we can always learn from others' experiences. I asked the people I interviewed to share their methods on curating and maintaining a positive body image.
"My advice would be to not be so hard on yourself. Have a support group of people that will help boost your confidence and empower you."
-Tori H. (she/her)
"For me, it's been finding value in myself that doesn't come from what I look like, as well as valuing my body for keeping me alive rather than being nice to look at."
-Lo R (she/her)
"Learning to listen to yourself is important. Whether it's "I'm hungry, and this is what I want," or "this is what I want to wear even if it's 'unflattering.'"
-Ray V. (she/her)
"Make a list of all the things you like about yourself. Practice talking yourself, even if you don't believe the things you're saying, you soon will."
-Jordan L. (they/them)
"My main tip is to try to love what makes you unique because likely that's the stuff that's not being represented, so it's really important that you love those things yourself."
-Abi B. (she/her)
My final thought is that there are some basic things we can do to further free ourselves from societal norms and improve self-esteem: uninstall FaceTune, eat that piece of cake, wear what you want, take that selfie, and just go hang out with your LGBTQ friends.