by Beth Runner, Vanderbilt University
Recent research has concluded that sexual orientation, in both men and women, may play a significant role in the feelings of dissatisfaction of one’s physical appearance and the development and onset of disordered eating habits. Numerous studies have found that homosexual men have a higher likelihood of being more dissatisfied with their overall physical appearance. It is not so clear for homosexual women. In this paper I will review a number of published research article and try to more clearly explain the contrasting results about homosexual women.
Adolescent sexual orientation
Although most of the studies look at an adult population, a study by French, Story, Remafedi, and Resnik, examined the effects of sexual orientation on an adolescent population. In their study they looked at a population based sample of about 35,000 students between the grades of seven and twelve. Each of these students completed a survey that asked questions about sexual orientation, body satisfaction, and different weight control measures. The final report included the findings from 212 heterosexual males and 182 heterosexual females for comparison with 81 self- identifying homosexual males and 38 self- identifying homosexual females, and 131 bisexual males and 144 bisexual females.
They discovered that homosexual males were much more likely than heterosexual males to report having a poor body image (27.8% to 12%) and admit to frequent dieting (8.9% to 5.5%), binge eating (25.0% to 10.6%), or purging (11.7% to 4.4%). On the other side, homosexual females were more likely than heterosexual females to report that they were happy with the way that they looked (42.1% to 20.5%). Interestingly though, homosexual and heterosexual females were about equally as likely to diet, participate in binge eating, and partake in purging.
Problems with study
Although the study seems to be appropriate, one must be wary about looking at a study, which was conducted through the use of surveys. This is particularly true when you are asking adolescents questions that deal with sexuality. It is possible that an adolescent’s embarrassment could be a factor in the answering of the questions. Social stereotypes could easily influence a heterosexual male to answer positively to questions about his body image because body angst is usually associated as a female behavior.
This study is important to research on this topic because it shows that from the beginning of sexual orientation decisions, eating habits are a priority to some. Finicky and disordered eating problems are not something that develops later in life. It begins way before that.
There are many explanations for why this could be true. Everyone knows about the pressures that are felt by children as they grow into adolescents. It is no surprise that these pressures are the driving forces behind the development of disordered eating habits.
Numerous studies have shown that adolescent girls report body dissatisfaction, as a result of social comparison and teasing were diet triggers. Social comparison arises at an early age and pressures to conform and succeed in a school situation can cause some children to begin to focus on their physical appearance. It is no surprise that the media is so often blamed for this phenomenon, as they too often portray thinness as a symbol of beauty, success, and popularity.
Adult sexual orientation
More common than the studies that look at adolescents are the ones that examine the relationships between eating habits and sexual orientation in adults. A study by Beren, Hayden, Wilfley, and Grilo successfully attempted to determine a link between body dissatisfaction and other associated variables with the affiliation of the homosexual community.
In their study, they asked heterosexual and homosexual men and women to fill out the Body Shape Questionnaire (http://www.psyctc.org/tools/bsq/bsq-16b.htm), Body Dissatisfaction subscale of the Eating Disorders Inventory, Rosenberg Self- Esteem Scale (http://www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/rosenberg.htm), Expanded Social Pressure to Diet Scale, Involvement Questionnaire, and the Kinsey Scale (http://wwwcgi.indiana.edu/~kinsey/ak-hhscale.html).
The researchers found that gay men felt more body dissatisfaction in comparison to heterosexual males. In contrast, the researchers found that there was little to no difference between lesbians and heterosexual women in these domains.
A more recent article published in 1999, by Lakkis, Ricciardelli and Williams, announced slightly different findings. They agree with the earlier research that states that homosexual men are more likely to suffer from body dissatisfaction and dietary restraint, but they found that homosexual women scored lower than heterosexual women on these same areas.
The reason for their findings is that they took a slightly different approach to their research. They administered tests to 266 participants, heterosexual and homosexual, male and female. They measured negative and positive gender traits, body dissatisfaction, the drive for thinness, dietary restraint, and bulimic symptoms. However, the differences in their results as compared to other studies were due to one other factor. While past studies had examined the relationship between body image and sexual orientation, this study looked at the relationship between sexual orientation and gender- related personality traits. In other words, they looked at the role of gender related personality traits or dimensions of masculinity and femininity. Their article says, “Gender traits are viewed as highly pertinent in the study of disordered eating because they provide one of the ways for studying the sociocultural context underlying disordered eating. Specifically, gender traits reflect stereotypes about the beliefs and behaviors typically attributed to men and women, which are acquired as they learn about the world and their roles in it.”
They measured the dimensions of masculinity and femininity and compared these findings to the findings about body image. They discovered that in this study, lesbians scored significantly lower than the heterosexual women on all the disordered eating measures, body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and bulimia. However, it is important to note that regardless of the person’s sexual orientation, higher scores on the negative femininity scale correlated with higher scores on disordered eating. The phrase negative femininity is associated with negative, stereotypical, feminine behaviors such as passivity, dependence, submission, and lower self-esteem.
Problems with study
One major problem with this study and others, although it is not certain as to how it affects the results, concerns the scales that are used to assess the desire for thinness and the susceptibility for bulimia were designed and developed for the assessment of women. For more accurate results, researchers should develop a scale for use by gay men. This would strengthen all of the arguments in these studies.
The hypotheses that account for these differences between homosexual and heterosexual body image beliefs are sociocultural in nature. One explanation is that the lesbian subculture is more tolerant of different body sizes and shapes because it places less emphasis on thinness and attractiveness. Compare this to the gay subculture, which places great emphasis on a more lean and muscular body ideal and overall physical appearance. This hypothesis seems to offer a reasonable explanation.
Another plausible hypothesis was suggested and researched by Siever in 1994. He suggests that gay men and heterosexual women are dissatisfied with their physical appearance because of the nature of the gender type that they seek out as a sexual partner. He researches and provides support for the idea that men place more of a priority on physical characteristics when looking for a sexual partner. On the other hand, women, when looking for a sexual partner, place more of an emphasis on factors such as personality, status, power, and income. This is consistent with evolutionary theories that deal with mate selection.
Sexual orientation and eating disorders
A study by Schneider, O’Leary, and Jenkins looked at the risk of homosexual males for developing eating disorders. They recruited 2,000 people in the San Francisco Bay are to answer an anonymous questionnaire. The final sample that was used included seventy- five heterosexual females, twenty- five lesbians, seventy- five heterosexual men, and fifty gay men. Their research confirmed that heterosexual females and gay males were more likely to binge eat and have a feeling of lack of control surrounding food. They also found that gay males exercised more than any other group besides the lesbian population. Straight females desired to lose twice as many pounds as any other group, but in actuality, straight and lesbian females did not differ in actual weight. Overall, heterosexual males were the most overweight and the least concerned about their weight issues.
Although this data does not explain why, it does show that the sociocultural expectations about physical appearance did in fact most greatly concern the populations who sought males as sexual partners. This goes back to the attributes that people seek when looking for a sexual partner.
The research seems to confirm that both sexual orientation as well as the dimensions of femininity and masculinity predicts the tendency for body image dysmorphia and disordered eating practices. Because the research is correlational in nature, it is difficult to form a conclusion such as, “If you are a homosexual male, then you will have an eating disorder.” There are always confounding variables and outside explanations for these behaviors. The best conclusion that one can draw from these studies is that on a dimension of negative femininity, the more negative the femininity trait, the more likely that an eating disorder will develop, for the entire population as a whole. Obviously, there will be exceptions to this conclusion.