Lee Suckling shares his own struggle with an eating disorder and draws on personal experience to explain what he believes is behind new findings.
A new study by University of East Anglia in the UK has found lesbian and bisexual women are at increased risk of being overweight or obese compared to heterosexual women. Gay men, conversely, are less likely to be overweight than straight men, and more at risk of being underweight.
Published in the Journal of Public Health, this is the first meta-analysis to investigate sexual orientation with weight. It used data from 12 other studies comprising nearly 100,000 participants in Britain.
There are a number of possible explanations for these findings, says the lead researcher Dr Joanna Semlyen. "We know that sexual minority groups are more likely to be exposed to psychosocial stressors, which impacts on their mental health and their health behaviours such as smoking and alcohol use and which may influence their health behaviours such as diet or physical activity.
"These stressors include homophobia and heterosexism, negative experiences that are
experienced by the lesbian, bisexual and gay population as a result of their sexual orientation identity and are known to be linked to health."
My thoughts are somewhat different
My personal argument to explain these findings is somewhat different. I believe weight variations for lesbians and gay men are largely owing to pressures from within our own community, not from the outside.
To put it simply, if you're not a thin and fit gay man, you're invisible in this community. It's a sad and dated cliché that harks back to the 20th Century era of the "Body Beautiful", but it still reigns true. Through both conscious (i.e. verbal) and subconscious (i.e. visual) pressure, many gay men still force themselves to go to the gym, diet, and constantly strive for the ideal V-shaped body.
This isn't to say straight men are immune from such duress, but it's less pronounced. Instagram et al. may be changing this for hetero guys, but they don't have decades of social pressure telling them to be tight, taught, and tanned like we do. Gay men, thus, suffer the exact same plight as straight women in this respect.
Lesbian women have a different experience
A 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study found that 75 per cent of gay women are likely to be overweight or obese.
This is almost double the obesity risk as gay men, and researchers put this down to lesbians having "low athletic self-esteem".
That notion confuses me, not least because lesbian women are largely responsible for pioneering the sport of roller derby.
Jokes aside, gay men also have low athletic self-esteem. Gay men grow up in a world where punters yell "poofta" at opposite team members during a rugby game. We are made to feel ashamed in locker rooms because our straight counterparts can be uncomfortable
with our presence. We are told that sports like gymnastics and ballet are only for girls.
How is a gay male supposed to come out with decent athletic self-esteem in that world?
I don't deny that lesbians have a hard time in athleticism too, because homophobia is everywhere when it comes to team sports. However, I think it's a hard sell to say that a lesbian in a soccer team will have a harder time than your average gay football player.
What internal factors might be influencing lesbian and bi women's weight? Body positivity is certainly stronger in the lesbian community than in the straight female world. There is far less expectation to conform to the ideals of a woman that men have historically set out for society. In fact, going against said ideals may even be seen as an effort to combat the patriarchy.
I was living proof
Ten years ago – though never diagnosed – I had an eating disorder. I was an obsessive caloriecounter, who experienced significant mental strain around both pressure from the gay community and my own personal desire to be attractive to men. At my lowest point, I weighed 63 kilograms (I'm six foot tall). I was living proof of why gay men are more likely to be underweight than anybody else.
Today, I have a healthier relationship with food and exercise but I haven't shaken off those "Body Beautiful" beliefs. I still feel the compulsion to go to the gym every single day, often twice a day. I don't get to eat exactly what I want.
This isn't a competition of gay men versus lesbian women, and who has it harder. It's difficult for all of us, just like weight and body issues are difficult for all straight people too.
Despite the scientific evidence that it's bad for your health, I wish I approached weight and body shape more like a lesbian. Gay women place less value on the physical construct of the feminine, and, quite rightly so, lesbians are more supportive of each other in being whatever shape of woman they want to be. Obesity issues aside, that's something I find admirable.
Where to get help
If you or someone else is in danger, or endangering others, call 111.
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