26 March 2013

Research: why are lesbians fat?

I'm working on a project at the moment which has entailed looking at data on lesbians and BMI (Body Mass Index, the hugely flawed socio-medical measurement tool that stratifies human body diversity into normal and abnormal/pathological states).

There is quite a lot of data available that correlates lesbians with higher BMI. This is surprising since lesbians are not usually the social group most likely to be invited to play in the petri dish. As research subjects go, lesbians are generally marginal, which means that evidence on issues that particularly affect lesbians is often slim on the ground. If you happen to be a lesbian, it can be difficult to make choices or to know where you stand in relation to certain health and social issues; that is if your choices are based in data.

But when you're talking about BMI, lesbians are the hot new social group in the research world.

Part of the interest in lesbian BMI is that lesbians also have a statistically raised risk of breast cancer, according to published research. This correlation may be significant in cancer research; what is it about lesbians that raises their risk for breast cancer? Can this variable be identified and used to help a broader population? Is the correlation about BMI? (By the way, this isn't a post about whether being a fat lesbian means that you'll get breast cancer, that needs a lot more unpacking than I have space to do here today, but we can certainly talk about it another time). As readers of this blog will know, BMI is a Big Deal in the same way that a cure for cancer is a Big Deal. When something is a Big Deal, research funding gets a lot easier to obtain.

Now lesbian BMI in its own right is the subject of a major research project. Last week The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US awarded $1.5 million (about £1m) to find out why lesbians are fat.

What appears to be the big puzzle is that although, statistically, lesbians generally have higher BMI than straight women, they don't seem to care as much about it as heterosexual women, it just doesn't bother lesbians as much. Yes, you read that correctly: there are some women who don't care very much that they're fat! How can it be?! They must be ker-azy! Whatta world!

Various hypotheses have been mooted for this social anomaly in a number of prior research projects, such as – and I paraphrase – lesbians aren't trying to please men and so they just let themselves go; or lesbians are somehow immune because they aren't part of the world of the normals; or lesbians are just weird. These explanations come saturated with stereotyping and are more likely to reveal broader social values and prejudices rather than much that is useful in the data.

There is a lot that is being overlooked here. It's possible that lesbians are more self-accepting of fatness because they are part of communities that have benefitted from 40-odd years of fat feminism. My PhD research tracked how fat feminism travelled through lesbian communities, through friendships and relationships, and through lesbian feminist, and later queer, media and organisations in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. This travelling fat feminism is also the stuff that enabled me to start thinking of my own fat body differently, back in the day. This was a phenomenon that was largely out of the sight of the straight world, though occasionally it surfaced on the Donahue show or, in the UK, with BBC chat-show host Terry Wogan, of all people. But I have evidence about the power of this discourse, shared and developed by peers, how it transformed many people's lives from abjection to social action, and how it continues to influence dynamic possibilities for living well at a higher weight. Lesbians basically invented fat activism, helped establish Health At Every Size and remain prominent within that movement.

Instead of building on this earlier work, learning from lesbian cultures, this new NIH funded project by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston looks set to try and destroy it (yeah, that's Boston, the home of some incredible fat lesbian activists and women's health pioneers). Their grant description frames lesbians not as heroes who expose the hypocrisy of fat panic, who have offered long-term evidence of low-or-no-cost, risk-free, practical interventions for well-being that could easily be adapted by and for other populations, but as a saddo social group who are "disproportionately affected by the obesity epidemic," which, let's remember is “one of the most critical public health issues affecting the US today”. The use of social justice language to appropriate lesbians into the rhetoric of the obesity epidemic beggars belief. Homophobia is surely part of this story too. Presumably this new research will help return lesbians to the straight and narrow and teach them the errors of their fat-friendly ways.

Edited to add:

I've just read a post by Marcie Bianco, Editorial Director at Velvet Park magazine. She links to this blog post, completely misunderstanding it and twisting it to support her own rendering of obesity epidemic rhetoric with added lesbian. She writes:
As "fat friendly" as our community has become, I think it's time that lesbians really begin to reflect and interrogate their life styles. Our feminism doesn't mean the self-abuse of our bodies, which is what, I think, some people conflate with a "healthy body image." A recent blog over at ObesityTimeBomb explains how lesbians have become "the hot new social group in the research world" because we are statistically fatter than our straight counterparts. Seventy-five percent of us are obese. Overall we have higher BMIs (Body Mass Indexes) than hetero-women, which is one reason why the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is starting a new $1.5mil study to find out why lesbians are fat—correlatively, too, why we have higher rates of breast cancer, as well as some other cancers.

This study is immensely problemmatic for a variety of reasons (who is lesbian or how do we define lesbian being, to my mind, the largest one), and the answer seems obvious (poor diet aggrevates risk of disease/illness), so even I think this is wasteful spending. What would seem a better study might involve researching why queer women overeat—previous sexual abuse? Lesbian Bed Death? depression? other mental health issues stemming from their collective socio-economic condition in a straight, patriarchal world?

At the very least, lesbos, I think we need to reassess our "lesbian body consciousness."

I have asked the site to remove the link to my work because I don't want to be associated with fatphobia. I don't endorse what she has written at all. Feel free to write to Velvet Park if you would like to complain or make a comment about this article.

The broader point to be made here, however, is in the erasure of lesbian resistance to obesity discourse, not only in the mainstream, but by lesbians too, many of whom, it seems, have already swallowed the straight and narrow and are cluelessly happy to uphold this rubbish.


BBC (1989) Wogan UK: [Television], The London Fat Women's Group.

Bianco, M. (2013) 'Your Bliss Point & Lesbian Obesity', [online], available: http://velvetparkmedia.com/blogs/your-bliss-point-lesbian-obesity [accessed 27 March 2013].

Freespirit, J. (1986) 'doing donahue', Common Lives/Lesbian Lives, 20, 5-14.

Harrington, E. (2013) 'Feds Spend $1.5 Million to Study Why Lesbians Are Fat', [online], available: http://cnsnews.com/news/article/feds-spend-15-million-study-why-lesbians-are-fat [accessed 26 March 2013].


Tom of Tottenham said...

I hate BMI. For years a relative of mine was under-eating because medical professionals had told them to get their BMI down. What they didn't mention that BMI measurement is based on white colour bodies so for non-white bodies the index just ain't gonna work. BMI just strikes me as a very lazy way to understand a person and I can't really see it has much to do with health.

As ever, good words from you here Charlotte.

Tom O'Totty

Allison said...

Nice work calling these obesity warriors out on their shit. On their study, it sounds like it will be garbage in/garbage out.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Tom, BMI is a load of crap, not least because of the kinds of bodies it tries to stratify.

Allison, thanks and yeah.

Tempest Nightingale LeTrope said...

As I understand it, BMI was originally simply a tool to categorize how many people were within what size range. It was never meant to be used for purposes of determining health. To attempt to determine health based on one characteristic alone, in this case size, is erroneous.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...


Kerri said...

The haste of so many to 'fit in' to the exploitative, hateful systems that undermine our human dignity is the most dysfunctional act of all.

Anonymous said...

God, how fatphobic, queerphobic, and misogynist can you get. Basically lesbians are being portrayed as *inferior* because they don't spend their entire lives obsessing about how many calories they eat so that some dumbass straight man can like them better. In my opinion, it makes them a lot more interesting and sexy than boring-ass straight women. I recently did an experiment where I went to several nearby restaurants and eavesdropped on parties of two or more women who 1. appeared conventionally feminine 2. discussed boys/men as romantic/sexual partners during the discussion 3. all used 'she' pronouns for each other (given the lack of trans women in this community, although I had no way of knowing for sure, I suspect most if not all were cis, and the 'she' pronoun use verified their self-identity as women). I then listened for conversational topics that DID NOT revolve around men, looks, weight, food, body shaming of other women, etc. I found very little discussion that did not center around these topics. In conclusion, I think the medical/mental health industry needs to stop obsessing on lesbians' BMI and focus more on straight women's tedious obsession with their own BMI. If we can estimate that 5-10% of women are queer, then this means that 90-95% of this generation of women are insufferable bores with little on their mind but their own fat and how to "catch" that ever-elusive Slab of Man.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Anonymous.

vanizorc said...

What's more is that the BMI does not differentiate between muscle and fat. Muscle weighs more than fat, so the BMI isn't even an accurate tool to measure "unhealthy obesity" to begin with.