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Weight problems - a big issue for Lesbians ?
© Chicago FreePress Feb28th
According to national health organizations, obesity is one of
the nations top health concerns, impacting nearly a third
of U.S. adults, and research indicates lesbians are not immune..
Several studies suggest that lesbians
have a higher BMI (or Body Mass Index, a height-to-weight ratio)
than their heterosexual counterparts. The Gay and Lesbian Medical
Association and other health groups list obesity as a major health
concern for lesbians, right alongside other issues like high rates
of smoking and drinking.
While the health community is
still far from clearly understanding lesbian health issues (there
is a woeful lack of research that provides insight on their health
risk factors), several studies suggest that lesbians tend to weigh
more. A 2003 study conducted by San Franciscos University
of California School of Nursing found that, on average, lesbians
carry more excess weight around their waistlines than heterosexual
women and have a significantly higher BMI. The study
suggested that because a BMI over 25 is generally associated with
an increased risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, lesbians
are at greater risk for these specific health concerns. The Chicago
Health and Life Experiences of Women Study (CHLEW), an ongoing
study of lesbian health issues, additionally discovered that more
than half of its participants had a BMI that exceeded the recommended
level, categorizing them as obese.
But while these studies and others
suggest that lesbians tend to have a higher BMI, very little is
known as to why.
Rebecca Fox, executive director
of the National Coalition of LGBT Health, said that there
is such a lack of research on the GLBT community in general that
it is hard to put studies that indicate lesbians have a higher
BMI into perspective.
Esther Rothblum, Ph.D., a womens
studies professor at San Diego State University who reviews literature
and research regarding lesbians and weight, agreed, adding that,
in addition to a severe lack of research, there are also many
concerns with several past studies methodology.
For example, one major study,
Rothblum said, used inappropriate samples by comparing the BMI
of older lesbians found in GLBT community centers to young heterosexual
college-aged women. Since BMI tends to increase with age, regardless
of sexual orientation, it was no wonder the lesbians in the study
Over the years, several researchers
have attempted to discover the reasons behind the suggested higher
rates of obesity among lesbians and have reached a variety of
conclusions. One study suggested that lesbians are less concerned
about weight because they have a better body image, for example;
another said that lesbians are less concerned about their body
image because they are not as impacted by the societal pressures
placed on heterosexual women to appear a certain way in order
to attract men. For years, feminist scholars and others have argued
from both sides of the fence.
Even the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services, which lists obesity as an important health
issue for lesbians to discuss with their doctors, stresses on
its Web site that more research is needed in many areas, such
as whether or not there is a different cultural norm among lesbians
about weight. The national health organization also stresses that
other factors linked to a higher BMI, such as socioeconomic status,
dietary differences, race (few studies have sizable samples of
lesbians of color) and age, need to be further researched and
Meanwhile, another ongoing argument
is whether discussing lesbians and their weight, regardless of
what researchers have found thus far, is actually worth all the
fuss. Some experts suggest that health organizations cant
see the forest for the trees, and all this focus on weight is
at the expense of other key issues, such as unequal access to
Its like scientists
saying there is a correlation between cold weather and turkey
death in November
but missing the most important variableThanksgiving
Day, said Marilyn Wann, a self-described fat rights activist
and author of the book Fat? So!
Local researcher Tonda Hughes,
director of the CHLEW study, is convinced that lesbians and obesity
is definitely a concern in the GLBT community.
But there is a reluctance
to put this out there because people dont want to further
pathologize an already stigmatized group, Hughes added.
But I think its increasingly clear its an issue
of concern in the community, especially among minority lesbians.
While some researchers warn that
their higher BMI puts lesbians at greater risk for various health
problems, others say that not enough research has been done in
order to draw this conclusion. For example, there is no population-based
data on cardiovascular disease among lesbians. Some researchers
and activists say that without proper data, those in the health
care industry are simply making an assumption.
They are making a mountain
out of a molehill, Rothblum said.
The health risk literature
(on the link between weight and health risks) is so poor,
There are those within the health
field that say weight, regardless of sexual orientation, has yet
to be proven to be a direct cause of major health concerns. This
supposed weak correlation between weight and health led to University
of California, Davis, nutritionist and psychologist Linda Bacons
development of the Health At Every Size (HAES) philosophy to health,
which throws conventional dieting wisdom out the window.
Instead of focusing on numbers
on a scale and restrictive diets, HAES emphasizes celebrating
the diverse shapes and sizes the human body comes in, finding
joy in exercise and focusing on intuitive, yet nutritious,
eating. Several studies suggest that this approach, which is more
a lifestyle change than anything else, is far more effective.
Bacon found during her own research that people who subscribed
to the HAES approach maintained healthier behavior, healthier
levels (such as blood pressure) and had higher self esteem than
those using conventional weight-loss methods.
Lesbian Community Care Project
executive director Catherine Jefcoat said that LCCP is really
into the HAES approach. In fact, last years research
pilot, Lets Get Real About Meals, which addressed
body image in the lesbian community, borrowed a lot from the HAES
Jefcoat said that LCCP hopes to
expand the pilot program. At LCCP, were always thinking
about the whole body, Jefcoat said, adding that lesbians
should embrace and celebrate their love of all the shapes
we come in while still being aware of what they might be
at risk for.
It doesnt mean that
we shouldnt discuss our risks and find ways to protect ourselves,
Jefcoat said. But I dont want to shame anybody. The
thing for me is being healthy, no matter what size you are.
Many GLBT advocates have embraced
HAES, and vice versa. For example, Club Round, a size-accepting
group based in Loves Park, Ill., that utilizes the HAES method,
has two GLBT-specific support groups, as well as a GLBT liaison.
Although the HAES movement is
gaining momentum, many still treat lesbian obesity as a grave
concern. But some activists and researchers, particularly those
who advocate for the rights of obese people, think something else
is going on that keeps people fixated on lesbians and their weight,
such as homophobia, sexism and a social stigma against people
categorized as obese or overweight.
First of all, society continues
to have negative attitudes about lesbians and their appearance,
even within the larger GLBT community.
For decades, the public
has had issues with the appearance of lesbians, in general,
Rothblum said.. In the 1940s and 1950s, the stereotype was that
lesbians were mannish. Now, she said, the stereotype
is that lesbians are fat and ugly.
Think of all the homophobic
jokes there are about lesbians and weight, Rothblum added.
Another potential underlying issue
is sexism. In the U.S., women, through television and glossy magazines,
are told to look a certain way. Western cultures fixation
on thinness has made the diet and weight loss industry a multi
billion dollar giant.
It is just a continuation
of our culture obsessing over our (womens) image,
While some research literature
suggests that lesbians arent as impacted by societal pressures
placed on women, many say lesbians cant escape it.
It is still there,
Rothblum said. No women are immune.
Others suggest that cultures
views of overweight and obese people factor into researchers
obsession with lesbian appearance. Some go as far as to say that
national health organizations are spreading their own hatred of
plus-sized people. The injustices larger people face on a day-to-day
basis have led to the creation of the so-called fat-positive movement,
which calls for giving people categorized as obese or overweight
equal rights and protecting them from discrimination. Leaders
of this movement, like the many GLBT people who reclaimed the
word queer, reclaimed the word fat. In
fact, fat activism borrows a lot from the queer studies handbook.
Bevin Branlandingham is the host
of Femmecast: The Queer Fat Femme Podcast. Branlandingham,
a self-identified fat femme who advocates for fat
rights, believes that gay and lesbian culture is unfortunately
impacted by mainstream cultures obsession over weight. She
started her own podcast, which is geared towards fat femmes and
queers, after recognizing a deficit in her own life.
It came out of my journey
towards self love, Branlandingham added. Now, she is a voice
of the fat-positive community. Her podcast celebrates a diversity
of body sizes and empowers individuals to fight anti-fat discrimination.
I feel people should be
free to be themselves, and all body types should be celebrated,
It doesnt surprise
me at all that queer people are at the forefront and that they
get it, Rothblum said, adding that historically, lesbians
have been the forefront of many movements, such as reproductive
Many GLBT-focused fat-positive
groups are calling for health groups to separate health from weight
and focus on issues that really matter. Many say that health care
providers and organizations need to take their eye off the scale
and focus on more important lesbian health issues.
What really matters is exercise
and proper nutrition, no matter what size you are, Fox advised.
We need to make that the norm in our community. Fox
also noted that another focus should be creating culturally competent
health care so that lesbians can access the care they need, such
as life-saving screenings.
Branlandingham agreed, noting
that she is still surprised by the large numbers of
queer women she knows who still have yet to be screened for diseases
like cervical cancer.
Its important our
community sees health as a right, Branlandingham said..
It shouldnt be defined by what your BMI is.
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