Body Image and Sexual Identity: An Interview Study with Lesbian, Bisexual and Heterosexual College Age-Women

By Leavy, Patricia; Hastings, Lisa | Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Body Image and Sexual Identity: An Interview Study with Lesbian, Bisexual and Heterosexual College Age-Women


Leavy, Patricia, Hastings, Lisa, Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality


Literature Review

Sexual Identity

Identity involves a process of "self-definition" (Yarhouse, 2001, p. 334). Sexual identity is a broad term that is partially constituted by gender identity and sexual orientation. Sexual identity and gender identity emerge out of interlinked and ongoing processes. Drawing on Althof (2000, pp. 247-249). Yarhouse explains that sexual identity encompasses gender identity, object choice, and intention. Within this framework gender identity refers to a person's sense of being male, female, or transgendered; object choice denotes sources of sexual attraction; and intention refers to how individuals responds to their sexual impulses. Sexual identity can be thought of as a "self concept" used to organize one's gender identity and sexual orientation (Cass, 1984). Diamond (2003) notes that, generally, these identities are labeled: "heterosexual," "gay," "lesbian," or "bisexual."

Research shows that sexual orientation may evolve over one's lifespan (Garnets, 2002; Kinnish, Strassberg, & Turner, 2005; Rust, 1993; Yarhouse, 2001).

From this perspective, individuals may experience transitions in sexual orientation throughout their lives. Sexual orientation is viewed as continuously evolving out of an individual's sexual and emotional experiences, social interactions, and the influence of the cultural context. Such influences may work together to maintain sexual orientation or may precipitate subtle or not-so-subtle shifts in orientation. (Kinnish et al., 2005, p. 174)

Some studies have shown that gender is a stronger predictor of sexual behavior than is sexual orientation (Garnets, 2002; Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2000). It has been found that women tend to be more relationally-minded and men tend to be more physically and body-centered when concerning sexual attraction, whether homosexual or heterosexual (Garnets, 2002; Owens, Hughes, & Owens-Nicholson, 2003).

Gender Identity and the Cultural Construction of Femininity

"Sexual identity" needs to be situated within the context of gender identity. Gender is a contingent, culturally and historically specific social construction that provides femininity and masculinity scripts for the performance of gender (Glenn, 2000; Lorber, 1993; 2008; Marshall, 2008). Dominant (or hegemonic) femininity prescribes both appearance and behavior. Research shows significant socio-cultural pressures on women to be thin in contemporary society (Dworkin & Wachs, 2004; Ehrenreich & English, 1979; Ewen, 1976; Hansen, Reed, & Waters, 1986; Hartmann, 1976; Hesse-Biber, 1996, 2006; Hesse-Biber, Leavy, Quinn, & Zoino, 2006; Silverstein, 1984; Wolf, 1991). Women attempt to achieve this ideal through controlling their bodies (Hesse-Biber et al., 2006). In contemporary American society fat is equated with "a devaluation of the feminine" (Dworkin & Wachs, 2004, p. 611). There are also femininity norms regarding makeup and hair. Dellinger and Williams (1997) found institutional pressures on women to "appropriately" wear makeup as a means of establishing heterosexuality and credibility in the workplace. Long, young-looking hair is also a marker of hegemonic femininity. Koppelman (1996) suggests bald women or women with gray hair are subject to social punishments for defying female beauty norms.

The relationship between the dominant constructions of femininity and masculinity is one of polarization and exclusion. As with all social constructions, femininity is largely defined by what it excludes (Leavy, Gnong, & Ross, 2009). Pfohl (2008) writes: "the believability of the social constructions that lie inside the circle depends on what the circle expels to the outside. In this sense, social constructions are, at once, constituted and haunted by what they exclude" (pp. 645-646). In the case of dominant femininity, attributes culturally ascribed to masculinity are positioned in opposition to femininity. …

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Body Image and Sexual Identity: An Interview Study with Lesbian, Bisexual and Heterosexual College Age-Women
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