Contributor: Staff at Carolina House
We’ve all stood in front of the mirror and worried about whether some part of ourselves could look better. But while body image concerns can affect anyone, the LGBTQ community is uniquely impacted by feelings of body dissatisfaction that can stem from countless influences.
Body Image in the LGBTQ Community
In a survey of 4,505 U.K. adults, the Mental Health Foundation and YouGov found that more than half of the respondents who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) said they felt anxious (53%) or depressed (56%) because of body image concerns compared to 33% of adults who identified as heterosexual .
The LGB respondents also said their perceptions about their bodies made them feel shame (40%) and caused decreased self-esteem (54%) at a much higher rate than the heterosexual participants, with only 11% of straight-identifying respondents reporting feelings of shame and 37% reporting lowered self-esteem.
Even more troubling, 33% of LGB adults said they had suicidal thoughts or feelings because of body image concerns compared to only 11% of heterosexual adults .
It’s clear many people in the LGBTQ community are struggling with the way they feel about their bodies. But LGBTQ people are not a monolith, so there’s no single reason why body image concerns impact this community so strongly.
The Heteronormative Body Ideal
Western culture has its own concept of the ideal body that is based on heteronormativity, or the idea that heterosexuality is society’s default. The authors of a meta-analysis in the Journal of Health Psychology describe the female version of this body type as having curves and large breasts while remaining “tall, thin, toned, and flawless” .
Some experts believe that this body ideal doesn’t affect lesbian and bisexual women because they do not seek the male gaze, which is the influence behind this concept of beauty. However, the authors found that factors such as the way a person was raised, the news media, and social media can make a person feel pressured to strive for this type of body regardless of their sexuality.
The male version of the ideal body type might be described in similar terms, but Naveen Kumar, a contributor at online LGBTQ magazine Them, adds phrases such as “ripped torsos,” “taut muscles,” and “broad shoulders.” Kumar also points out that the ideal body has almost always been white .
“…[F]it, white men embody and propagate the body ideals that have long dominated gay culture,” Kumar said. “Pressures to achieve these standards are a significant source of mental distress among gay and bisexual men, who suffer disproportionately high rates of disordered eating, steroid abuse, and other adverse consequences of body modification.”
Regardless of the source, the pressure to live up to the heteronormative body ideal can cause significant distress among LGBTQ individuals.
LGBTQ Community Pressures
A person’s sexuality certainly doesn’t define them, but some LGBTQ people have become less concerned about the way their bodies look after coming out and connecting with other LGBTQ people.
Having opportunities to be around people who don’t subscribe to heteronormative standards of beauty can offer a different perspective of the “ideal body” that allows LGBTQ people to celebrate who they are .
But the LGBTQ community comes with its own set of standards, and some people have felt body dissatisfaction from pressure from others in the community to look a certain way. The lesbian and bisexual subculture, for example, includes varying appearance norms such as “butch” and “femme.”
While these roles are staples of LGTBQ culture, many lesbian and bisexual women have reported that these arbitrary rules make them feel “inauthentic” and “invisible” . Feeling good about your body can be nearly impossible when you feel like you can’t control how you present yourself.
For LGBTQ people of color, expectations about their bodies often come from harmful stereotypes about Black and brown people. White gay men were more likely than their racial peers to expect Black or brown gay men to look and act a certain way, Kumar noted.
This included body shape, sexual performance, and even skin tone. Many LGBTQ people of color must fight to feel comfortable with their bodies, Kumar said, by finding community, code-switching, or actively breaking down racial preconceptions .
Like anyone who struggles with body image concerns, the reasons LGBTQ people suffer from body dissatisfaction are varied and complex. Feeling dissatisfied with your body doesn’t always lead to an eating disorder. But if you are feeling overwhelmed by compulsive thoughts or feelings, reach out for professional help immediately.
Resources: Mental Health Foundation. (2019). Body Image: How we think and feel about our bodies. Mental Health Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/DqVNbWRVvpAPQzw.pdf.  Smith, M.L., Telford, E., & Tree, J. (2017). Body image and sexual orientation: The experiences of lesbian and bisexual women. Journal of Health Psychology. 24(9). DOI: 10.1177/1359105317694486.  Kumar, N. (2019). For queer men of color, pressure to have a perfect body is about race too. Them. Retrieved from https://www.them.us/story/queer-poc-body-image.
About the Sponsor:
Carolina House is an eating disorder treatment center that serves people of all genders, ages 17 and older. Within our residential and outpatient programs, we offer a range of services such as LGBTQ- and male-inclusive programming to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our treatment connects men and women with the care they need to achieve long-term recovery from eating disorders and other mental health concerns.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published January 14, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 14, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC