Thoughts about Lesbian Body Image
We talk a lot on this blog about how important healthy sexual desire and sexuality relate to body image, and I just want to talk about how body image matters to me in relation to my sexual orientation as a queer woman (sometimes I like the words bisexual or lesbian, but queer for now). Many of the contributors and members of the discussion group discuss how the male gaze demeans them and how they rebel against the assumption that their bodies are meant for male desire or male judgment. I entirely agree with this idea that the female body should be taken as an entity independent of of another’s sexual desire.
But how is this complicated when the observer and the one desiring is no longer a man, but is a woman? How does this change those assumptions? I’ve had this conversation a lot lately – the book Female Chauvinist Pigs has influenced some of the discussion, but since I haven’t read it, I’m not going to reference it. What happens when women impose upon each other standards, stereotypes, and copy much of the language of sexual violence and domination we so often decry in patriarchal heterosexual culture? I’m definitely guilty of shallowness when looking at other women, and certainly guilty of thinking of sexual desire in terms of achieving a goal or conquest, like “getting some” and “topping” etc. I won’t even go into the jokes made about bisexuals, and the jokes about those who fit certain stereotypes – butch, femme, boi, stud, etc. etc.
All this does is reinforce body negativity and reinforce the idea that sexuality and appearance must be connected and often conflated. Many of these stereotypes I mentioned have corresponding assumed sexual behaviors (top, bottom, etc.), and create assumptions that appearance relates to sexual behavior – again reinforcing the idea that someone is asking for it or advertising themselves for some kind of sexual behavior.
Anyway, I often feel uncomfortable about body image’s interplay with sexual orientation – I am often very self-conscious about where I fit in the spectrum of “gayness” – am I too masculine? Too feminine? What do I really want to look like and act like, and how much of that is me cowtowing to a subculture’s expectation? One time I dressed in a suit (ish) for Midwinter Ball, and my girlfriend wore the traditional dress, makeup, and specially-done hair. I couldn’t ever relax and ease into enjoying the evening, because I was so hyper-aware of the butch-femme thing we had going on.
And this is all the self-imposed expectation – these are expectations from other lgbtq women, and not even addressing the expectations put on my sexuality by the general public and media. I am expected to either be a bicurious babe constantly wearing the latest fashions, and flip-flopping between straight and gay and willing to use my sexuality to titillate men, or to be completely out of fashion, wearing tevas, hating all men, having questionable hygiene, and immediately moving in with my girlfriend. And while I would probably be judged closer to the latter by most general standards, I don’t ever feel comfortable “fitting” there. One time I was legitimately dressed in a man’s clothing for a party with a “boyz night” theme, and some guys drove by me and yelled “DYKE!” out the window, then circled the block and did it again. In this case it was a group of young men trying to project their own ideas about how lesbians look onto me (I still identified as straight at this time, so it was extra confusing). Because of this projection about how I am supposed to be, I find myself using phrases like “I’m so gay!” in a joking sort of way whenever I listen to Ani DiFranco for hours on end or wear my Carhartts or talk about the representation of women in … anything, really. There’s just so much pressure to both fit these expectations but also be self-conscious of them and dismissive of them when you actually fit them in any way.
I suppose this post has no resolution – just a way for me to shed light on the fact that body imagery and body negativity can come from all kinds of places – even those of us who are women loving women. I find the only way to counteract this is to disregard the stereotypes and not let myself get put into that “lesbian butch feminist” box, but it’s not always easy, especially when the lgbtqa community so readily reinforces them when we “fit.”