The LGBT Health & Development Program

Research Blog–Body Image: Differences by Gender and Sexual Orientation

Posted on October 2nd, 2015 by Trey in Featured, Research Blog. No Comments

man holding mirror with reflection of self

Photo credit: Christian May, “Mirror=Ego(2),” March, 22, 2010.

Poor body image is associated with negative psychological outcomes, such as depression and low self-esteem [1,2] and has been linked to maladaptive behaviors, such as disordered eating [3] and risky sex behaviors [4]. Past research has largely focused on females, finding that they are at a heightened risk for developing body image concerns compared to males [5]. However, less research has focused on the impact of sexual orientation on body image and health outcomes associated with it.

Does body image differ for same-sex attracted individuals?

Studies examining gender differences in body image have found that females report greater body dissatisfaction than males [5, 6]. While women tend to desire extreme thinness, men tend to want higher muscle weight and lower body fat [7]. Of note, findings are different for cis-gendered gay males and females.

Gay Men

Gay men report similar levels of body dissatisfaction as heterosexual women [8]; however, the body ideal for gay men is more similar to heterosexual men.  Gay men desire a similar shape to heterosexual men (broad shoulders and a thin waist), but have a higher emphasis on thinness [9]. Additionally, gay men report greater pressure to look good [10] and feel that their appearance is more important to others [11]. This may be due in part to the strong emphasis in gay male culture on physical appearance [12] and attractiveness [13].

In effect, gay men may be dissatisfied with their bodies on two dimensions. They may be dissatisfied with their strength and athletic prowess (like heterosexual males) and may doubt their physical attractiveness (like heterosexual women) [8].

Additionally, it has been suggested that the unique stressors that gay men experience contribute to their body dissatisfaction, such as internalized homophobia, stigma, and experiencing an anti-gay physical attacks [14].

Lesbian Women

Levels of body dissatisfaction also differ for lesbian women. While females are generally considered to be at the highest risk for developing body image concerns, lesbian women may be at a lower risk for body dissatisfaction compared to heterosexual women and gay men [8].  Studies have found that heterosexual females place more importance on physical appearance than lesbian women [15]; while lesbian women report higher esteem in regard to their sexual attractiveness, they are less likely to internalize physical attractiveness [16] and believe that attractiveness is not an important factor in the choice of a partner [8].

In Sum

We know that women aren’t the only ones who struggle with concerns about their bodies. Although body image concerns exist across genders and sexual orientations, heterosexual men appear to have the least concerns and report the most positive evaluations of their appearance [17]. In contrast, both heterosexual women and gay men appear at higher risk for body dissatisfaction [8, 18]. This may be due in part because of the pressures on appearance [10, 11] and minority stressors found in gay men [13, 19]. Additionally, future research is needed to better understand body image in bisexuals and non-cisgender individuals.

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[1] Olivardia, R., Pope Jr, H. G., Borowiecki III, J. J., & Cohane, G. H. (2004). Biceps and Body Image: The Relationship Between Muscularity and Self-Esteem, Depression, and Eating Disorder Symptoms. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 5(2), 112.

[2] Paxton, S. J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Hannan, P. J., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2006). Body dissatisfaction prospectively predicts depressive mood and low self-esteem in adolescent girls and boys. Journal of clinical child and adolescent psychology, 35(4), 539-549.

[3] Barker, Erin T, & Galambos, Nancy L. (2003). Body dissatisfaction of adolescent girls and boys: Risk and resource factors. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 23(2), 141-165.

[4] Gillen, M. M., Lefkowitz, E. S., & Shearer, C. L. (2006). Does body image play a role in risky sexual behavior and attitudes?. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(2), 230-242.

[5] Tiggemann, Marika, & Williamson, Samantha. (2000). The effect of exercise on body satisfaction and self-esteem as a function of gender and age. Sex Roles, 43(1-2), 119-127.

[6] Pingitore, Regina, Spring, Bonnie, & Garfieldt, David. (1997). Gender differences in body satisfaction. Obesity Research, 5(5), 402-409.

[7] Furnham, Adrian, Badmin, Nicola, & Sneade, Ian. (2002). Body image dissatisfaction: Gender differences in eating attitudes, self-esteem, and reasons for exercise. The Journal of Psychology, 136(6), 581-596.

[8] Siever, M. D. (1994). Sexual orientation and gender as factors in socioculturally acquired vulnerability to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 62(2), 252.

[9] Tiggemann, M., Martins, Y., & Kirkbride, A. (2007). Oh to be lean and muscular: Body image ideals in gay and heterosexual men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 8(1), 15.

[10] Hospers, H. J., & Jansen, A. (2005). Why homosexuality is a risk factor for eating disorders in males. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(8), 1188-1201.

[11] Yelland, C., & Tiggemann, M. (2003). Muscularity and the gay ideal: Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in homosexual men. Eating behaviors, 4(2), 107-116.

[12] Williamson, I. (1999). Why are gay men a high risk group for eating disturbance?. European Eating Disorders Review.

[13] Morrison, M. A., Morrison, T. G., & Sager, C. L. (2004). Does body satisfaction differ between gay men and lesbian women and heterosexual men and women?: A meta-analytic review. Body image, 1(2), 127-138.

[14] Kimmel, S. B., & Mahalik, J. R. (2005). Body image concerns of gay men: the roles of minority stress and conformity to masculine norms. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 73(6), 1185.

[15] Wagenbach, P. M. (1997). The relationship between body image, sexual orientation and gay identity.

[16] Share, T. L., & Mintz, L. B. (2002). Differences between lesbians and heterosexual women in disordered eating and related attitudes. Journal of homosexuality, 42(4), 89-106.

[17] Herzog, D. B., Newman, K. L., Yeh, C. J., & Warshaw, M. (1992). Body image satisfaction in homosexual and heterosexual women. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 11(4), 391-396.

[18] Peplau, L. A., Frederick, D. A., Yee, C., Maisel, N., Lever, J., & Ghavami, N. (2009). Body image satisfaction in heterosexual, gay, and lesbian adults. Archives of sexual behavior, 38(5), 713-725.

[19] Meyer, I. H. (1995). Minority stress and mental health in gay men. Journal of health and social behavior, 38-56.

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