Things to Remember about Body Image and LGBT Youth
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t struggled with their body image and I’m no different.
When I was younger, it wasn’t just about weight and appearance; it was related to figuring out my sexual orientation, not being comfortable with my assigned gender, and being a person of colour in a world that privileges white people. With such high numbers of youth reporting dissatisfaction with their bodies, it’s important to bear in mind that body image problems might look different in LGBT youth from diverse backgrounds.
I grew up in a society that told me that my body was wrong. It was wrong because it was overweight. It was wrong because it was brown. It was wrong because it was a “girl’s body.” It was wrong because it was short.
I wished that I looked like other girls, which is what I thought I was at the time. I wanted long blonde hair, fair skin, and blue eyes. I wanted to be taller, thinner. I wanted to conform to the narrow standards of femininity that seemed so effortless for others.
As a young person, I knew I didn’t like my body, but I didn’t know enough about oppression or societal norms to connect my feelings to larger issues. As I entered puberty and my body started to change, I resented it even more. Unable to explain or articulate how I felt about my body, I internalized all those thoughts and developed an eating disorder.
In hindsight, I don’t think I really wanted to look like a white girl; I just wanted people to stop noticing my body. I didn’t want to be “different.” And my differences didn’t stop there. I never fully identified with stereotypically female interests and occupations and I didn’t consider that I might not be straight until I was 16 or 17.
I also think these challenges had everything to do with gender dysphoria and internalized racism. It’s not so much that I wanted my body to be different, it’s more that it didn’t match how I wanted to express myself and my gender. I didn’t know what kind of body I would be more comfortable in, so I tried to control the way my body looked in the only way I could think of. There was no way for me to change my reproductive organs or the colour of my skin, but I could control the shape and size of my body.
When I discovered words like “bisexual” and “queer” and “transgender” and “non-binary,” they were helpful. I understood better what my body was and how it experienced attraction. But I still didn’t like it.
The first time I went to a Pride parade, I saw a group of people marching with signs that read: “this is what a [sexual orientation] looks like.” They were all white people. To me, that proved that those labels were not for me because I didn’t look like them.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know that there could be queer and trans people who looked like me at all. When I found out that they did exist — that there were online communities on Tumblr and in queer forums where people were talking about the intersections of racism, gender, sexuality, and body image — I was relieved to see those discussions. I felt validated, that I wasn’t wrong or alone. I wanted to recover from my eating disorder and try new ways of using my body to express my queerness without it being at odds with my race.
Finding a community of people who felt the same way as I did was a turning point for me. If we want to see LGBT youth thrive in a world that tells them they are all sorts of wrong, we need to foster and/or create these communities and lead them to existing ones.
There are many ways to do this. I think that making sure that youth are comfortable expressing themselves in whatever manner they want is a top priority, as well as giving them space to figure out their self-expression. Using their preferred name and pronouns and not using gendered labels to refer to body parts are great places to start.
In terms of eating disorders, it’s important to recognize that not everyone who has one is “skinny”, and it’s not just white cisgender women who get them. Eating disorders are mental illnesses and must be taken seriously. Here is some more information on how to guide youth towards recovery from an eating disorder.
I didn’t find it helpful to know that other people thought my body was perfect the way it was. Telling youth to “love their bodies” isn’t going to make them happy. I think a better message to send would be that it’s alright not to like your body and that there are ways to change your body and that’s okay. Empowering youth to explore and understand their own bodies is important, as is the knowledge that wanting to change their bodies isn’t necessarily wrong.
In terms of material support, giving youth resources on sexuality and gender and facilitating access to puberty blockers and relevant health care when appropriate are amazing ways to support those who are trans, genderqueer, or still figuring out their gender. Knowing how, or being able to connect youth to people who know how, to navigate the healthcare system in Ontario is essential, as is anticipating the challenges that come with being LGBT in that system.
It is also crucial to have people with lived experience of being LGBT and people of colour working in your organization. It’s one thing to expose them to successful and happy LGBT and people of colour, but to see and engage with those people in their own communities is something else entirely. Youth need to have access to someone who understands them and the specific issues they face, should they want to talk about their body. It’s also a subtle way to show that there are people who look and feel like them everywhere, and they’re not alone.
These are the kinds of community supports and initiatives that I would have liked to have known about when I was growing up.
Even though I may not be happy with my body all the time, I now have the language and space I need to talk about it.
I’ve been able to explore ways to be more comfortable in my body, like cutting and dyeing my hair, wearing a bra or a binder, and choosing clothes that match how I feel on any given day. I’m still on the path to accepting the features of my body that I cannot change, but I know that my body holds the source of my life and is capable of more wonders that I can appreciate.
Photo Credit: 2.0 Photography