BODY IMAGE & SELF ESTEEM IN THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY


As Pride Month winds down and the season of parades and festivals comes to an end, the LGBTQ+ community finds ways to celebrate their identity each and every day.

However, there are barriers that would threaten that celebration. Bias, discrimination, harassment, and contrived ideals for the feminine and masculine form permeate what could be a more tolerant, inclusive narrative.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge my place as an outsider in this. I've faced discrimination as a woman, yes, but I'm a heterosexual, white person. There are layers here in which I can sympathize, but not fully understand the depth. A quick google search defines "intersectionality" as "the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage." Although you might like to believe that intersectionality is a myth, it is statistically sound. Racial minorities, women, and of course, the LGBTQ+ community, encounter discrimination and systematic prejudice on a larger scale than, let's say, a caucasian male in the Untied States would. That is not to accuse or to diminish, it just is. So it has been for hundreds of years. Oftentimes, these barriers affect the acquisition of good jobs, medical care, media representation, and fair jurisdiction. For example:

The official FBI reports state that in 2017, there were 1,487 recorded hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community from organized hate groups or pre-mediated aggression. Additionally, 18.2% of all hate crimes committed throughout the year were based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Many cases also go completely unrecorded, and these totals don't account for the daily slurs, harassment, and blatant discrimination that continues unchecked.

How does any of this relate to body image? Well, as we now know, there are prevalent, physical dangers facing the LGBTQ+ community to consider. But what happens when the every day pressures that we all feel to be beautiful, to be desirable, to be perfect, intersect with the cruel message that who you are, is wrong?

Discovering and accepting and growing into ourselves means change. Sometimes these changes are physical, sometimes internal. We live in a world of narrow, toxic beauty standards that leave men and women feeling constantly dissatisfied with their shape. The intersection of discrimination and marginalized media, of homophobia and body distortions, creates a unique sector. Not only does our culture have a set idea of what a body should look like, it provides little to no margin for variation as far as fulfilling traditionally male/female body standards goes. When the disapproval to simply be queer intertwines with the expectation to adhere to a caricatured male or female form, self esteem suffers.

When we examine that reality, we can more easily understand how hard it would be to feel safe. Heard. Wanted. Understood.

That is why I am sharing real-life stories of real-life people. The individuals featured here are both friends and strangers, who have kindly agreed to share their words.

Twenty-four year old Sam Skidmore from Salt Lake City, Utah writes,

"Pre-coming out, I very strongly felt the pressure to match masculine ideals. Most of this was self-taught; I didn't want people to know I was gay, and since I associated gay with flamboyancy, I did all I could to be as traditionally masculine as possible. I played sports, I exercised, I didn't purposefully speak with a high voice. And it was all quite unhealthy because it wasn't really me.

When I finally came out, I had a moment where I tried out different things (being very stereotypically gay, changing how I dressed, etc.) because I could. But even in the gay community, there is some shaming. There are a lot of gays who are still very masculine and don't respond well to overly feminine people. While I have found my own balance and definition of masculinity that works for me, I think that there will always be pressure to fit certain roles for my gender."

Sam highlights the age-old, trepidatious, "well, how gay are you?" mentality that many people, even those in the LGBTQ+ community, hold dear. Meaning, are you flamboyant, are you subdued, are you too proud, are you closeted...cause one is okay, another should be turned down a notch. Essentially, it's just a way of saying you don't approve without actually saying you don't approve. These assumptions reside in the stereotypes around gay individuals and the conditions around your tolerance. In reality, there is so much room for variation in our narrow ideas of what someone is supposed to be and the results may often surprise you.

The following individual has respectfully asked to remain anonymous, but has given me permission to share her insights about transtitioning.

"I don't think people really understand how damaging little comments about your body can be. A well-intended, "Damn, you have super broad soldiers" or a, "work out much more and you're gonna start looking too muscular, you'll lose your femininity" can be. I honestly don't think it's anyone's place to talk about another person's body as bad or good. I seriously can't think of one instance where it's been remotely appropriate or wanted. It's very isolating to open yourself up to your truest, happiest self and be met with such unsolicited advice on how I should look."

Grad student Brady Mitchell writes,

"It's so frustrating when people say I don't "look like a lesbian." You'd think that's not something that people would actually say anymore, but it is. I'm a "girly girl" as far as the stereotype goes. I always get this quizzical look when I tell people I like girls, like they're trying to understand why I'm not more "boyish" I guess. People really wanna see what they they want to see, and when they don't, I guess it doesn't make sense or it's threatening. It kinda makes me feel like an alien. Not to mention, those looks read pretty blatantly, "I don't believe you. How bout you just try dating more men?"

This piece was not written to solve the problem, but merely to bring awareness to it. We cannot change if we do not understand what we're doing. Our culture has a nasty habit of projecting our own insecurities onto others. The LGBTQ+ community carries unique burdens that allies can help make lighter. In the war on self esteem and healthy body image, you and I build resilience when we lift one another up. Helping others to feel loved and accepted is a key ingredient in improving our own self image. I don't know about you, but I like myself a whole lot more when I am at least trying to be understanding. Hopefully, our language will become more inclusive, our minds more open, and our hearts more willing. There will always be stereotypes and judgments. But hopefully someday, instead of being threatened by what is different, what is new, what is unfamiliar, we can be curious and willing. That is when we can truly begin to shape our future.

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