Sexuality & The Body

This originally appeared in BCN issue 114.

Research about Sexuality and the Body – Reporting back to the community

Some of you may remember that myself (Nikki) and a colleague (Caroline) asked BCN readers if they would be happy to complete a questionnaire about their bodies back in the summer of 2008. Thank you loads to those of you that participated, we really appreciate it.
We were trying to find out whether bisexual, lesbian and heterosexual women feel differently about their bodies, are affected by different social influences, or behave differently in their appearance practices. In the past researchers have tended not to include bisexual women and instead omit them or amalgamate their results with those of heterosexual and lesbian women. We were outraged by this omission of bisexuality and were extremely keen for bisexual people to be properly included. That meant that we were really pleased when lots of people took part – overall nearly 500 women completed our questionnaire and 85 of them identified as bisexual (119 were lesbians and 268 were heterosexual). Compared to previous research 85 bisexual women is a lot, so we were especially grateful to bi women for taking part

Before we could explore our aims we had to ask some questions about feminism, because this might have made a difference to the answers. On the whole the women who were lesbian or bisexual were more likely to have stronger feminist beliefs, so we took this into consideration when we analysed the responses you all gave.

Body satisfaction, dieting and social pressures

Some psychologists have suggested that all women (regardless of how they identify their sexuality) are under similar societal pressures (from the media, family, friends etc) to look a particular way. However, some psychologists have suggested that lesbian women may feel happier about their bodies than heterosexual women, because they are not expected to be as concerned about being sexually attractive to men. This debate has remained unresolved. Further, very little is known about bisexual women and their feelings about their bodies – although some researchers assume that they will be ‘just like lesbians’. One aim of the research was to explore any similarities and differences between bisexual women, lesbians and heterosexual women.

Body satisfaction: In this research, all the women who took part had very similar scores on how they felt about their bodies, suggesting that all women experience similar expectations about how they look and what size and shape their body ‘ought’ to be.

Dieting: All the women also had similar scores on dieting suggesting that all women may be just as likely to diet.

Social pressures: Results from this survey support the theory that lesbian (but not bisexual) women are somewhat protected from social appearance pressures because:
·    (perhaps surprisingly) bisexual women were more aware of media pressure than heterosexual women, who in turn were more aware of media pressure than lesbian women
·    heterosexual women reported experiencing more pressure from their partners than lesbian women (bisexual women fell between heterosexual and lesbian women)
·    lesbian women were less accepting of the expectation that they should have thin bodies (‘the thin ideal’) than either bisexual or heterosexual women.

Women, their body hair, make-up use, and femininitySome psychologists have predicted that lesbian women, and maybe bisexual women too, might be less likely to remove their body hair, wear make-up, or engage in other dress and appearance practices that tend to be considered ‘feminine’ (like having longer hair, or wearing skirts and so on) because they already fall outside of the norms of mainstream society through not being heterosexual, and are therefore less likely to feel they have to comply with other societal norms around appearance.

Body hair: Lesbian and bisexual women were generally more positive about body hair, and the results indicated that they were less likely to remove hair from their underarms, legs, or eyebrows. However, when it came to facial hair and the bikini line there were no differences between the groups. However, the more feminist women were less likely to alter their bikini line hair. It seems that both lesbian and bisexual women may resist adhering to traditional body hair practices. Perhaps this is a way of resisting patriarchal norms and/or expressing sexuality.

Make-up: The findings of the questions about make-up were that heterosexual women wore make-up the most, lesbians the least, and bisexual women somewhere in between.
Femininity: In response to questions about how important femininity was to you, it seemed that heterosexual women were the most concerned with femininity, lesbians the least, and again, bisexual women somewhere in between.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) communities and experiences of discrimination

Psychologists have suggested that if you are a lesbian or a bisexual woman who is committed to LGB communities then this could ‘protect’ you from experiencing mainstream pressure to be thin. Previous research has also found that many lesbian women adopt particular dress and appearance (such as short and/or spiky hair, lip piercings, particular tattoos etc.) in order to be recognized as lesbian by other lesbian women. However, sometimes heterosexual people can recognise lesbian women from their appearance, and this may cause lesbian women to be targets of discrimination/ prejudice/ hate crimes. It has been suggested that bisexual women are less easily recognisable than lesbians, but (as in other areas of psychology) less is known about bisexual appearance than heterosexual or lesbian appearance.

LGB communities: The findings from this research show that experiences of media pressure were indeed lower for those lesbian and bisexual women who were committed to an LGB community.

Experiences of discrimination: Lesbian women experienced more discrimination than bisexual women. These experiences of discrimination were negatively associated with lesbian women’s satisfaction with their appearance.

So in summary…The responses of bisexual women in our research sometimes differed from the results of either lesbian or heterosexual women. These findings are exciting to us – and we hope to you too – because they tell us a little bit about what the women who took part believe about their bodies and appearance. They also tell us how some women behave in relation to ‘traditional beauty practices’, and what specific influences (in relation to sexuality) might shape how women feel about their appearance. The results indicate that sexuality can affect how women understand their bodies, what they consider important about their appearance, and how happy they are with the way that they look. The findings that you contributed towards suggest that it is essential for psychologists and other researchers to consider the sexuality of participants when they conduct research, especially when that research relates to appearance and beauty.

What about the future?

Obviously these findings are just a start, but they clearly show that it is important that anyone else doing sexuality research considers bisexual people as distinct from lesbian, gay or heterosexual people. We also think that it is important for future researchers to try to include i) people who don’t identify with any of these labels but perhaps who do associate with other terms (like queer/ pansexual/ fluid, etc.) ii) people from a range of backgrounds and of different ethnicities (many of the people that took part in our research were middle class and white), iii) bisexual men and iv) trans people (there is very little research around bisexual men’s feelings about their bodies and appearance, or of trans peoples’ experiences). Finally, we noticed that people often refer to ‘LGBT community’ as though it’s one common community or shared space. It’s important to pick this apart as the commercial LGBT scene is clearly a different space to a lesbian/ LGBT choir or walking group, or to specifically bisexual or trans communities, spaces, and events.

Thanks again to those of you that participated. We hope that you enjoyed doing the questionnaire, and that you and everyone else reading BCN have found the results interesting. If you’d like to contact us or ask any questions then please do:

Nikki Hayfield is a bisexual researcher and psychology lecturer based in Bristol. Email: [email protected]
Caroline Huxley is a heterosexual researcher, and LGB-ally, based in Warwick. Email: [email protected]