Sexual Identity Now a Health Risk?

By Gabriella Ibacache

Last week the Department of Health and Human Services released their annual LGBT Issues Coordinating Committee Report. The report outlines nine objectives for advancing LGBT health in the upcoming year. It addresses LGBT needs in areas such as health insurance coverage, discrimination, HIV/AIDS prevention, sexual violence and partner abuse, substance abuse, and research. The report was released with the following statement by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius:

We made a commitment to ensure fairness in the health care system for all Americans, LGBT Americans included, and this report shows we are following through on that pledge. Millions of LGBT Americans now have greater assurances that they will be treated with dignity and respect in our health care system.

The full report can be viewed at HHS’s website.

The third objective in the report plans to build upon current anti-obesity efforts by researching ways to reduce obesity in lesbian and bisexual women. According to HHS and an Institute of Medicine report from 2011, lesbian and bisexual women have higher rates of obesity than heterosexual women, and are considered to be “at risk” of becoming obese based on their sexual identity. The IoM report uses studies that rely on the BMI, which is known to be an inaccurate way of measuring an individual’s health; one study concludes that while lesbian women were found to have a higher BMI, they also engaged in more regular physical exercise than heterosexual women. The BMI has a tendency to classify women with high muscle mass from exercise and normal body fat as obese. The study also suggests that the higher BMI may be because of differing social and behavioral norms, such as a different standard of beauty and a more positive body image.

These speculations are based in stereotypes of queer women and do not have enough evidence to suggest that there is an obesity problem among lesbian and bisexual women. The studies imply that women who may not be interested in attracting the romantic or sexual attention of a man will care less about their health. This is an outrageous and offensive assumption to make, and it reinforces sizeist and homophobic ideas about queer women’s bodies. It’s clear to me that the real issue here is not health; there seems to be a lot of concern around women’s bodies that differ from the heterosexual norm, resulting in efforts to police these bodies. Also,  focusing anti-obesity efforts on queer women would mean even more profit for the diet and weight loss industry, which thrives on the shaming of women’s bodies.  But what are the implications and dangers of claiming that a sexual identity is now a “risk factor” for obesity? Using the inaccurate, flawed BMI system and outdated stereotypes to target lesbian and bisexual women will produce a body- and identity-shaming campaign of obesity that is definitely not welcome or needed, and will contradict HHS’s intentions to treat LGBT people with greater dignity and respect.

Image courtesty of Flickr Creative Commons user ben levin


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