How beauty standards for LGBTQ people affect body image and mental health


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Aron DoSouto has been dragging in Saskatchewan for over 25 years. Now it is increasingly difficult to book rooms.

“They want a slender Barbie doll that will look great in a pair of underwear and a bra,” said DoSouto, who performs under the drag name Iona Whipp.

As a gender-fluid person, DoSouto doesn’t find himself aligning with entrenched body ideals for gay men, which he described as “chiseled, built, and lean or lean twinks.”

Aron DoSouto says there is a constant need to be leaner within the LGBTQ community and event planners and the public expect thinner queens. (Submitted by Aron DoSouto)

The 43-year-old Saskatoon resident said that while media pressure to conform to certain beauty standards for LGBTQ people has been around for a long time, in part because of the influence of “pornography, erotica and movies”, shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race still perpetuated them. DoSouto said he recently received derogatory comments on shows about his appearance, including his weight.

“A lot of us queens come from the theater – the old school where it was all about selling the song – but these days there’s this constant need and push to be leaner and really lean,” said he declared.

“It’s a big thing that affects our community. If event organizers are willing to shell out the money, they will bring RuPaul girls who can show a bare and thin belly, instead of supporting the local community.”

Aron DoSouto says he doesn’t find himself aligning himself with the body ideals of gay men, who he describes as being “chiseled, built and muscular or skinny twinks”. (Submitted by Aron DoSouto)

Narrow beauty standards can have a serious impact on the body image of LGBTQ people, who already face higher rates of eating disorders and other mental illnesses. Further fueling fears of not being accepted for their identity or orientation, some people may go to great 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.”

“These norms that are rooted in patriarchy are carried over into the queer community,” said Bird, who identifies as two-spirited and queer.

One example: Androgyny (combining masculine and feminine characteristics) is often portrayed as a “neutral color palette or boxy cuts of clothing,” Bird said, and it stems from trends among cisgender men.

“I was often told not to wear bright colors,” they said.

Ell Bird poses in a grove of trees.  They work with young gay men in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Ell Bird says they’re often pressured to have their plus-size bodies shaped like an hourglass, which they say stems from heterosexual beauty standards. (Submitted by El Bird)

The desire for tall bodies to be hourglass-shaped also draws inspiration from heterosexual beauty standards.

This makes Bird feel left out. They said meeting past dating profiles with grossophobia listed as “personal preferences” triggered the binge eating disorder they had struggled with since childhood.

“I get this negative reinforcement that I’m not enough.”

“The fear of being fat and the consequences of isolation”

Several studies found that eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors are more common among LGBTQ adults and adolescents than among heterosexual and/or cisgender people.

Phillip Joy, a registered dietitian 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 to be cisgender and straight is seen as the norm, but also try to 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’re already isolated based on your gender or your sexuality and then the risk of further isolation based on desirable bodies,” Joy said.

“Some bodies have a higher sexual value than others. We live in an image-driven society where a billion-dollar diet and fitness industry tells people they can’t be happy and healthy until they look good.”

Phillip Joy, a registered dietitian and assistant professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, says there is a certain Eurocentric aesthetic for gay men, but the pressures are evident in all LGBTQ+ communities. (Danny Abriel)

Joy said advertising aimed at white gay men particularly emphasized this ideal, as did the need for a muscular, healthy body to counter wasting syndrome during the AIDS epidemic.

“Many have grown up watching queer as folkwhere the men were all built, muscular, white – and they were the only queer role models in the media at the time,” he said, referring to the popular American TV series from the early 2000s. Now some say RuPaul’s Drag Race makes them want to achieve a certain body type to be accepted.”

Joy pointed out that these pressures are “evident in all LGBTQ+ communities.”

Trans and intersex people more at risk

“Undoubtedly, compared to other identities in the LGBTQ+ community, trans and intersex people are disproportionately affected when it comes to pressures around body image,” said Cody Esterle, team member at Fighting eating disorders in underrepresented populations: a trans+ and intersex collective, which addresses the high rates of eating disorders in these marginalized communities. Although the organization is based in the United States, it receives more and more requests from Canadian clients.

A major study on American students as of 2015, rates of eating disorder diagnoses, use of diet pills, laxatives, or vomiting were highest among transgender participants.

Cody Esterle, team member of Fighting Eating Disorders in Underrepresented Populations: A Trans+ & Intersex Collective, says that when it comes to other identities, trans and intersex people disproportionately face pressures around the body image. (Submitted by Cody Esterle)

Esterle said representation of transgender and intersex people in the media is limited, and when it does, it tends to be “white, Eurocentric.”

“If you just google ‘handsome’ or ‘attractive’ men or women, you’ll only find chiseled white men or women.”

A transmasculine himself, Esterle said many trans people conform to these ideals in hopes of being socially accepted or uplifted.

“If a trans identity doesn’t live up to those beauty standards and ideals that cis people have created, so much harassment can happen to them. [as a cisgendered person] moreover, there will be less questioning of identities.”

Maya Homevoh agreed that “for many trans people, conformity is a means of survival”.

As an agender, queer, black person, Homevoh faces many levels of pressure from beauty standards. The stereotype of a “curvy black figure” being attractive, for example, has seeped into her circle of peers, she said.

Maya Homevoh says that for many trans people, conforming to beauty standards is a means of survival. (Sent by Maya Homevoh)

“Black people are often reduced to our bodies,” said the Waterloo, Ont., resident. “I’m not curvy, but the expectation remains that all women or black women should be curvy. It’s dehumanizing.”

Go to the extreme

Don Lu, a recent graduate from the University of Saskatchewan, comes across dating profiles that say “no fats, no women”.

“Although my physique is okay for my height of 5’8″, I find myself wanting to be more muscular, partly so that more guys are into me,” Lu said.

“I feel like not many people are attracted to Asians like me. If I was white with the same physique, that would have been a different story.”

Lu goes to the gym at least four times to work on her body.

He’s not the only one who goes to such lengths to achieve a certain look.

Don Lu says he often comes across dating profiles that say “no fats, no women.” (Submitted by Don Lu)

“So many people in the queer community are getting botox, liposcution, calf implants and other plastic surgeries, or taking pills to deal with social exclusion,” said Alex Sangha of Sher Vancouver , an organization that caters to LGBTQ South Asians.

In her counseling practice, Sangha encounters unrealistic body goals, eating disorders, and people who are “depressed and devastated at not being able to meet media portrayals of queer bodies.”

Sangha himself has “experienced a lot of exclusion, alienation, isolation and loneliness trying to fit into the gay community” as a 50-year-old and “a bit heavy”.

“I’m not the ideal stereotype of what people find desirable in community,” he said.

“Grossphobia is worse in the queer community than a lot of intersectional layers of racism and oppression because if you are a beautiful, fit ethnic person, you will be symbolized but at least accepted.”

Alex Sangha runs Sher Vancouver, which caters to LGBTQ+ South Asians in Metro Vancouver.
Alex Sangha says many people in the queer community resort to botox, liposcution, calf implants and other plastic surgeries, or take pills to cope with social exclusion. (Avi Dhillon)

While Sangha said media portrayals are becoming more diverse, they still largely perpetuate stereotypes.

Homevoh said she never conforms to other people’s expectations of her appearance and even tries to avoid supposed compliments on her body, which she finds triggering.

“I had an eating disorder and I tell people not to comment on my weight. It’s important to set those limits.”

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