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‘Weight in the lesbian community means something different than it does, maybe, in the straight community.’

Dr. Jane McElroy.jpeg
Provided by Dr. Jane McElroy

Dr. Jane McElroy is a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri. She specializes in LGBTQIA+ healthcare and spoke about how weight and weight loss can take on different significance in lesbian and bisexual communities.

Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words.

Dr. Jane McElroy: We did a focus group and that's another thing that, I would say, mostly lesbian women get really upset about is that they'll go in to see their doctor and the doctor goes, “You need to lose weight,” because we all – it's ubiquitously demonstrated that lesbian women are significantly more heavy than straight women.

And so, you go to – lesbian women go to the doctor and the doctor says,”You need to lose weight, you need to lose weight.” And that's really annoying to them because weight in the lesbian community means something different than it does, maybe, in the straight community. And so, just asking, telling someone to lose weight is really a signal that you don't get me, you don't understand who I am or why I look this way.

There’s many, many factors as to why someone gets heavier. So, some people eat just to feel better. It's sort of a mental health treatment to some extent because it feels good.

There's also an issue with some women that they want to be bigger. That, you know, they're in a relationship where they want to be the bigger person, the protector of a relationship, and so, being a bigger size is actually what they want – because it signals that “I'm going to take care of my family.”

For some women it's – and this is for all women, straight or gay – is the sense of, “I don't want to be sexually attractive to men,” and in American society, being heavy is not typically considered very sexually attractive.

"And I said, “Well, you just need to ask them how they feel about their weight,” and if they say, “I'm good” – the conversation is over."
Dr. Jane McElroy

So, if you walk into a bar, you walk into a party and you're quite heavy – a lot of the men will just not look at you, and so, for some women who don't really want to be hit upon, it's just a way to protect yourself.

There's also a sense of we, we need to, we tend to do the same thing as people around us, and then when you start looking like people, so that’s sort of social behavior, right?

And I think the final thing that I think is that if someone says, “I want to lose weight” in the gay, in the female gay community – there is the potential that she'll get pushback from her friends. Because there's a sense about, are you co-opting? You need to love yourself; you need to love who you are, whatever size you are, you love yourself. And if you're dieting or you want to lose weight, that means you don't love yourself.

And so there's sort of self-hate, and this, you know, this internalized homophobia kind of issue going on. If women want to look differently and look more like the prototypical heterosexual community, then all of the sudden that's a problem, and that's saying that you don't love yourself.

So, all those factors play a role into the weight, and some of those are not common for straight women, and so, I was mentioning to one of my colleagues who's in family medicine, who's a doctor, I said, you know, and so her question to me was “Well, what should I ask? Because they do need to lose weight, because it's not good for their bones and not good for their joints.”

And I said, “Well, you just need to ask them how they feel about their weight,” and if they say, “I'm good” – the conversation is over. But they may say, I'd really like to lose weight, ad then that opens the conversations for interventions or what you can do to help them do that.

Anna Kochman studies journalism (cross-platform editing and producing) and computer science at the University of Missouri.