How beauty standards for LGBTQ people impact body image, mental health
Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race further perpetuate narrow ideals, say community members
This piece was originally published on Sept. 25, 2022.
This article discusses eating disorders. Scroll down for a list of resources if you or someone you know needs help.
Aron DoSouto has been doing drag in Saskatchewan for more than 25 years. Now, he's increasingly finding it difficult to book venues.
"They want a slender Barbie doll who will look good in a pair of underwear and a bra," said DoSouto, who performs under the drag name Iona Whipp.
As a gender fluid person, DoSouto does not find himself aligning with the well-entrenched body ideals for gay men, which he described as "chiselled, built and butch or bone-thin skinny twink."
The 43-year-old Saskatoon resident said that while the media pressure to conform to certain beauty standards for LGBTQ people has long existed, partly due to the influence of "porn, erotica and films," shows like RuPaul's Drag Race have further perpetuated them. DoSouto said he's recently received backhanded comments during shows about his appearance, including his weight.
"Many of us queens come from theatre — the old school where it was about selling the song — but nowadays there's this constant need and push all about being skinnier and real thin," he said.
Though RuPaul's Drag Race features plus-size artists, DeSouto said their involvement still does not seem to be boosting their popularity or demand for bookings outside of the show.
"It's a big thing affecting our community. If event organizers are willing to shell out the money, they will bring RuPaul girls in who can show a bare, slender midriff, instead of supporting the local community."
Narrow beauty standards can have serious impacts on body image for LGBTQ people, who already face higher rates of eating disorders and other mental illnesses. Further fuelling fears of not being accepted over their identity or orientation, some people can go to dangerous lengths to look a certain way.
'Negative reinforcement that I'm not enough'
Moose Jaw, Sask., resident Ell Bird grew up around "toxic ideas about body image."
"Those standards entrenched in patriarchy are carried over in the queer community," said Bird, who identifies as two-spirit and gender-queer.
One example: androgyny (combining masculine and feminine characteristics) is often presented as a "neutral colour palette or square cuts of clothing," said Bird, and that stems from trends among cisgendered men.
"I have often been told to not wear loud colours," they said.
A desire for plus-size bodies to be an hourglass shape also draws from heterosexual beauty standards.
It makes Bird feel excluded. They said coming across dating profiles in the past with fatphobia listed as "personal preferences" triggered the binge-eating disorder they have struggled with since childhood.
"I'm getting that negative reinforcement that I'm not enough."
'Fear of being fat and the consequence of isolation'
Several studies have found that eating disorders and disordered eating behaviours are more common among LGBTQ adults and teenagers than people who are heterosexual and/or cisgender.
Phillip Joy, a registered dietician and assistant professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, said LGBTQ people experience higher body image pressure as they not only try to conform to the ideals of a society in which being cisgendered and straight is considered the norm, but also try find belonging within queer communities.
"The fear of being fat and the consequence of isolation is a very real thing in the queer community because you are already isolated based on your gender or sexuality and then the risk of further isolation based on desirable bodies," said Joy.
"Certain bodies have higher sexual currency than others. We live in an image-driven society where a billion-dollar diet and fitness industry tells people that they can't be happy and healthy until they look fit."
Joy said advertising toward white, gay men has particularly emphasized this ideal, as did the need for a muscular, healthy body to counter wasting syndrome during the AIDS epidemic.
"Many grew up watching Queer As Folk, where men were all built, muscular, white — and those were the only queer role models in the media at that time," he said, referencing the popular American TV series from the early 2000s. "Now, some say RuPaul's Drag Race makes them want to attain a certain body type to be accepted."
Joy emphasized that these pressures are "evident across all LGBTQ+ communities."
Trans, intersex folks at greater risk
"Undoubtedly, in relation to other identities in the LGBTQ+ community, trans and intersex folks are disproportinately affected when it comes to pressures around body image," said Cody Esterle, a team member at Fighting Eating Disorders in Underrepresented Populations: A Trans+ & Intersex Collective, which addresses the high rates of eating disorders in these marginalized communities. Despite the organization being based in the United States, it is getting more and more requests from Canadian clients.
A major study of U.S. college students from 2015 found rates of eating disorder diagnoses, use of diet pills, laxatives or vomiting was highest among transgender participants.
Esterle said representation of transgender and intersex people in the media is limited, and when it does happen, it tends to be "white, Eurocentric."
"If you just google 'beautiful' or 'attractive' men or women as a search, you'll just find white, chiseled men or women."
A transmasculine person himself, Esterle said many trans folks conform to those ideals hoping to be socially accepted or uplifted.
"If a trans identity falls outside those beauty standards and ideals that cis-people have created, so much harassment can come their way. If you fit more and pass [as a cisgendered person] more, there will be less questioning of identities."
Maya Homevoh agreed that "for many trans folks, conformity is a way of survival."
As an agender, queer, Black person, Homevoh is facing multiple layers of beauty standard pressure. The stereotype of a "curvy Black figure" being attractive, for instance, has seeped into her peer circle, she said.
"Black people are often reduced to our bodies," said the Waterloo, Ont., resident. "I'm not curvy, but the expectation remains that all Black women or femmes have to be curvy. It's dehumanizing."
Going to extreme lengths
Recent University of Saskatchewan graduate Don Lu comes across dating profiles that say "no fats, no femmes."
"While my physique is all right for my 5' 8" height, I find myself wanting to be more muscular, in part so more guys would be into me," said Lu.
"I feel not many people are attracted to Asians like me. If I were white with the same physique, it would have been a different story."
Lu visits the gym at least four times to work on his body.
He's not the only one going to such lengths to achieve a certain look.
"So many people in the queer community have botox, liposcution, calf implants and other plastic surgeries, or take pills to fit the bill to counter social exclusion," said Alex Sangha of Sher Vancouver, an organization that caters to LGBTQ South Asians.
In his counselling practice, Sangha encounters unrealistic body goals, eating disorders, and people getting "depressed and devastated that they can't meet media portrayals of queer bodies."
Sangha himself has "experienced a lot of exclusion, alienation, isolation and loneliness trying to fit in the gay community" as someone who's 50 and "a little heavy."
"I'm not the ideal stereotype of what people find desirable in the community," he said.
"Fatphobia is worse in the queer community than a lot of intersectional layers of racism and oppression because if you're a good looking fit ethnic person, you'll be tokenized but at least accepted."
While Sangha said media representations are becoming more diverse, they still largely perpetuate stereotypes.
Homevoh said she never conforms to others' expectations of her appearance and even tries to avoid supposed compliments about her body, which she finds triggering.
"I used to have an eating disorder, and I tell people to not comment on my weight. Setting those boundaries is important."
Canadian eating disorder resources
- National Eating Disorder Information Centre: 1-866-633-4220.
- National Initiative for Eating Disorders
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 and online chat counselling.
- BridgePoint Center for Eating Disorders (Saskatchewan): 306-935-2240, email@example.com.
- Fighting Eating Disorders in Underrepresented Populations: A Trans+ & Intersex Collective.