How Sexual Orientation and Gender Relate to Body Satisfaction
New research suggests the male gaze could play a key role.
Posted Dec 30, 2019
Body satisfaction, intuitively, refers to how satisfied we feel about our physical appearance. Those of us with higher body satisfaction tend to feel pretty good about how we look (e.g., I like my legs, I have a nice smile), whereas those with negative evaluations of our bodies (e.g., my arms aren’t muscular enough, my stomach isn’t flat, or my nose is too big) tend to experience body dissatisfaction.
It is widely accepted that women tend have greater body dissatisfaction than men. However, there is a limited understanding of how (or whether) sexual orientation may intersect with gender and body (dis)satisfaction.
That is, do gay and bisexual men have similar (or perhaps very different) body satisfaction compared to their heterosexual counterparts? And do lesbian and bisexual women resemble heterosexual women in terms of body satisfaction?
The New Research
In a recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers sought to explore not only how gender influences body satisfaction but also whether sexual orientation may intersect with gender to influence body (dis)satisfaction.
The study included 17,005 participants who were collected from a larger, national-probability sample of New Zealanders. The sample included 62.6% women and 37.4% men. The majority of participants were Caucasian (81.5%), followed by 11.3% Māori, 4.6% Asian and 2.6% Pacific-identifying participants.
Sexual orientation was measured using an open-ended question: “How would you describe your sexual orientation?” The authors then grouped the responses into the following categories: heterosexual, lesbian, gay, and “plurisexual” (a term the authors used to capture both bisexual- and pansexual-identifying participants).
Body satisfaction was measured using participants’ agreement with the statement “I am satisfied with the appearance, size and shape of my body,” with responses ranging from 1 (very inaccurate) to 7 (very accurate).
To rule out possible confounding variables, age, body mass index (BMI), regional deprivation, ethnicity, urban location, employment status, relationship status, parental status, highest level of education, country of origin, and religiosity were controlled for so the authors could examine gender and sexual orientation specifically.
The authors made the following hypotheses: 1) heterosexual men’s body satisfaction would be significantly higher than heterosexual women’s, 2) heterosexual men’s body satisfaction would be significantly higher than gay men’s, and 3) plurisexual men would report higher body satisfaction than gay men.
Given the possibility that body dissatisfaction is linked to internalization of the male gaze, the authors also expected that 4) lesbian women would report higher body satisfaction than gay men as well as plurisexual and heterosexual women.
As hypothesized, heterosexual men reported significantly higher body satisfaction than heterosexual women. Heterosexual men also reported higher satisfaction than their gay and plurisexual counterparts.
Lesbian women reported significantly higher body satisfaction than gay men.
There were no significant differences between heterosexual, plurisexual, and lesbian women’s body satisfaction. And, somewhat unexpectedly, heterosexual and plurisexual women’s mean body satisfaction scores were not significantly different from gay men’s body satisfaction.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The study results are consistent with the idea that people who desire to be perceived as attractive by men may experience increased pressure to look a certain way, based on traditional beauty standards and the male gaze.
There were no significant differences in body satisfaction scores among women, regardless of sexual orientation. In other words, at least among participants in this study, identifying as lesbian or plurisexual did not affect body satisfaction over and above being a woman, suggesting that women of all sexual orientations may internalize dominant beauty ideals whether or not they seek male attention.
Gay men in this study reported lower body satisfaction than lesbian women, but were as dissatisfied with their bodies as heterosexual women and plurisexual men and women. The authors suggest that while there is variation in the gay community, it may be that some gay men aim to adhere to a particular body type, which may create a sense of belonging and shared identity (whereas choosing not to adhere to appearance norms in the gay community could pose the risk of rejection from others in their community or having their authenticity as a sexual minority questioned). However, due to the unexpected nature of these findings the authors note it is important to conduct further research into the prevalence of detrimental outcomes associated with body dissatisfaction among gay men as well as the unique factors that may help to alleviate body-related distress in this population.
While heterosexual men in this study reported higher levels of body satisfaction than any other group, it’s also worth noting that social norms leave less room for heterosexual men to admit or show they care about their physical appearance and discuss their potential insecurities in this area.
Maria Carmela Basabas, Lara Greaves, Fiona Kate Barlow & Chris G. Sibley (2019) Sexual Orientation Moderates the Effect of Gender on Body Satisfaction: Results From a National Probability Sample, The Journal of Sex Research, 56:9, 1091-1100, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2019.1667947