Objectification or liberation? Bisexual and lesbian women's experiences with physical appearance

Amy Black, University of Rhode Island


Using a multi-method qualitative design and analytic approaches derived from grounded theory, the current study examined the appearance standards within lesbian and bisexual communities and how these norms relate to lesbian and bisexual women's psychological experiences with physical appearance. The study investigated how the women's diverse social identities relate to these experiences. Participants consisted of a relatively diverse sample of 24 bisexual (n = 10) and lesbian (n = 14) women who took part in 1 of 4 focus groups. From this sample, 4 bisexual women and 6 lesbians were recruited to participate in in-depth interviews. Participants represented a broad age range (18--62; M = 36.2).^ Participants discussed their experiences with the internalization of appearance standards within both mainstream and lesbian subculture and how this related to their sexual identity and body image. Both lesbian and bisexual women repeatedly discussed two conflicting concepts: (1) having freedom from and resistance to traditional and oppressive norms of appearance (e.g., celebration of all kinds of women, body sizes, beauty in curvaceousness, non-traditional gender norms); and (2) pressure to conform to strict standards within lesbian communities (e.g., dress code, butch/femme identities). The latter serves primarily as a "survival" tool or a way through which they can signify their membership in the lesbian community. ^ Within the interviews, participants discussed their experiences of objectification and its subsequent effects of body consciousness and self-objectification. The act of self-objectification served as a strategy to cope with and anticipate others' reaction to their bodies. By viewing themselves from an outsider's perspective, several women experienced negative psychological consequences such as anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and disruption in "flow." Finally, a small sample of participants (n = 4) discussed specific mental health outcomes as a result of their anxiety and body dissatisfaction. ^ Suggestions for future research to explore these strategies and the more specific ways lesbian and bisexual women experience objectification, body consciousness and the negative outcomes of self-objectification are provided. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Social|Women's Studies|Gender Studies

Recommended Citation

Amy Black, "Objectification or liberation? Bisexual and lesbian women's experiences with physical appearance" (2006). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3239900.