Alex Blaze

Oprah's website names gay men one of the top self-esteem boosters for women

Filed By Alex Blaze | January 13, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: body image, gay men, oprah, science, women

There's an article up over on Oprah's website: 11 Ways to Feel Beautiful. In between a few fairly obvious suggestions - like "Don't base your body image off fashion mags!" and "Wear clothes that are appropriate for your size!" - is this:

Recent research shows that our social networks have a profound effect on our behaviors and attitudes--including how we perceive our appearance. "It's hard to feel good about your looks if you're surrounded by people who criticize their own," says Etcoff. "Spend time around people who are confident in their bodies, and you'll find yourself following suit." And if you don't already have a few gay men in your circle of friends, you might want to add some: A study published last year in the journal Body Image found that friendships with gay men can elevate women's body esteem.

Gay friends, a woman's best accessory.

A while ago, back when I lived in the Phoenix area, I fell in with a group of friends, mostly women, who saw themselves as fag hags and me as a nameless homosexual. It was a breath of fresh air, considering I had just escaped exurban Indiana, but it started getting obvious, I suppose, that I was being valued more for what I was than who I was when one person told me that she just thought it was crazy that she couldn't go shopping with me because I had been denied my gay birthright: impeccable fashion sense!

Never mind the fact that she was a terrible dresser and I was more just... a nerd. Sorry, I had just left an Indiana high school where I was the president of the Science Olympiad team and the top-ranked policy debater. Fashion sense just wasn't expected out of me.

Since then, I've had plenty of friends, gay, straight, bi, men, women, and I'm anti-social enough to choose them well. I've encountered a few mindless please-please-let-me-be-a-cool-fag-hag types, but I know the warning signs and it's not a problem I think about any more.

But that's not really the issue with that O article. The chic gay friend has been a tired cliche for over a decade now that it's almost ridiculous to see it again in a mainstream lifestyle magazine in 2010. In 1990, it was an edgy subculture waiting to be exploited by media mongers like Oprah. In 2010, it's like writing that boys don't like girls who are too smart. It was done a while ago.

As is the typical gay response to it. About ten years ago, this comment from The Advocate probably would have been the most common response from the community:

The worst thing a person can say to me is, "Oh my Gosh! I LOVE gay people! Let's be friends and you can help me go shopping." Never mind the fact that I'm into hiking, bicycling, rugby, etc...So what I do now is ask myself, "Would this person be my friend if I was straight?" If the answer is yes, you've got a real friend. If no, then DEALBREAKER!

Nope, no one's overcompensating for a sense of lost masculinity here!

Here's a sampling of the actual most common response, from today:

We're so cute, we're almost real. Deny us all of our civil rights and make us your eunuch servants, hairdressers, and therapists. Since gay is the new black, it's time we follow how black people moved from slavery to talk show hosts and the president, and start the revolution!

How nice! They use us to make themselves feel better but when we campaign for the right to marry whom we love, they tell us that our love is not the same as theirs! With friends like that who needs the Christian Right?

Nice. Gays are the new accessories for 2010. Just don't let us get married or enjoy any equalities past our second-class citizenship.

Advice like this cracks me up. Like every gay man is just DYING to be your own personal therapist. I think its insulting to try to make friends based on someone's orientation. If you want gay friends, then start getting involved in activism and gay/straight alliances.

The gays today and their rights. It's almost like the kids today and their texting. Before you know it, gay kids will be texting about their rights, amiright?

But that study actually did happen. Some Canadian scientists wanted to know if having gay friends would help women's self-esteem, and it did:

Women who associate with gay men are often portrayed as physically unattractive and lacking in both self-confidence and attention from straight men. However, many women report enhanced self-esteem and feelings of attractiveness as a result of attention from their gay friends. It is well established that body esteem can be negatively impacted by certain peer processes, yet there is a dearth of quantitative research on positive peer influences on women's body esteem. We tested two hypotheses: (a) women with gay male friends have poor body esteem and are rejected by heterosexual men, and (b) more contact with gay men is positively related to body esteem. Participants were 154 heterosexual women, who completed measures of their friendships with gay men, straight men and women, body esteem, relationship involvement and break-ups. Results supported the hypothesis that women's body esteem, specifically feelings of sexual attractiveness, is positively associated with friendships with gay men.

Now, that doesn't make it "true." They should continue to study the issue and there'll have to be more studies to see if this is just a fluke. But, in the meantime, maybe we ought to consider withholding our magical, self-esteem-boosting friendship until ENDA gets passed.

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Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | January 13, 2010 2:53 PM

Sounds like Oprah Winfrey considers gay men to be an accessory like a handbag or new shoes. How can anybody not be offended by that? I wonder what she would say if somebody said that all white people need a black friend to make them feel better about themselves? She would be upset and justifiably so. I see her comment as nothing more than the further dehumanization of gay people.

Let's take this a bit further ... perhaps Oprah has a circle of 300-pound bears she hangs around with when her weight is up, and a circle of fashion twinkies for when her weight is down ... and a set of S&M leather daddies for when she is having trouble keeping Stedman under control.

Oh, but I'm being vicious and catty, how stereotypically gay of me ...

[ * Actually, I love Oprah --- I'm just jokin' around. * ]

I hear ya Alex... you're one step above a little doggie in a purse. Don't talk too much about your sexuality, laugh at their jokes and you'll be fine.

I've also noticed the phenomena of queer people (especially women) who want to collect "The Trans Friend." I've had women latch onto me and tell other people about "Their Trans Friend" or the "Fierce Tranny they're such good friends with" (use of the word "fierce" translates to a severe case of "trans friend-ism"; use of the word "tranny" bespeaks a really bad case of entitlement). At inopportune and embarrassing moments they give me a biiig "wooo-hoo, you GO GIRL" to demonstrate they actually deign to view me as a "sort of woman". Sometimes they'll try to use me as a super substitute for a gay male friend ("how high a thread count do you think my sheets should have?"... "where should i go for my eyebrow wax?") or want me to accompany them to vaguely queer events—"I ? Eddie Izzard, don't you ? Eddie Izzard????!!!!!!" They like to talk a lot about my body and how lucky I am because I'm tall and thin ("you don't know what it's like") but heaven forfend a potential suitor should pay attention to me instead of them... things get dark real fast. Yup, it's hard being a hip collectable for the terminally insecure.

Ginasf, just have to say I adore that last line:

"Yup, it's hard being a hip collectable for the terminally insecure."

I am *so* going to steal it...

... and you also might pass it on to the little chihuahua that rides around in the Gucci handbag ...

heaven forfend a potential suitor should pay attention to me instead of them... things get dark real fast.

That reminds me of the time I was hanging out with a group of friends, all cis women, and one of them lamented how unfair it was that my breasts were bigger than hers. I asked her why she was focusing on my breasts when everyone else in the group had bigger breasts than either her or me.

She gave a non-answer but the truth was that she felt a sense of entitlement to femaleness that did not extend to me. She felt entitled to have bigger breasts than someone who was a less "real" female. Sigh. I cut her some slack, though, as she was crushing on half the women there (myself included, I believe) and just coming out as bi. But it was still quite annoying.

I've always been struck by the fact that straight women rarely strike up such friendships with lesbians. Granted, barring The L Word and some other niches, the (stereptypical) lesbian proclivity for flannel and Doc Martens does not scream "Great fashion advice!" (and I say that as a fan of Docs. Not so much the flannel, except for that incredibly comfortable and warm quilted shirt that I reserve for the home in winter).

But I do think there's an unacknowledged and perhaps hoped-for sexual tension between straight women and gay men that plays a part in all this. The possibility of such sexual tension arising between lesbians and straight women (a number of whom believe that all lesbians must secretly lust for them because, you know, we're incapable of controlling ourselves in their fine presence) freaks them out, to put it bluntly. And, of course, the queer lesbian or bisexual, horrors, must never be allowed in. Not enough men to go around!

There's also the economic factor. Gay men are increasingly the gatekeepers of access to style and, supposedly, the "high life" and social contacts - which is what straight women once were to gay men who had to bow to them and their affluent husbands in order to get into the upper echelons of society.

There was a book about these relationships which tried, unsuccessfully, to untangle the issues; I reviewed it here:

I think it's interesting that this is a Canadian study, not an American one. After all, gay people have the right to marry here.

Correlation is not causation. It could be women with good self-esteem and who think they're cute are just more likely to have a wide circle of friends that includes gay men. There's no evidence that being friends with gay guys is the source of that positive self-esteem.

Also, straight women were actually more likely on the whole than straight men to support gay marriage in Canada. Although this is anecdotal, I had very few straight female friends who were opposed, and most of them were very strongly in favour of gay marriage. I can't say the same for my straight guy friends. I seem to recall polling that backs up the idea that women were more likely to favour gay marriage in Canada than men, but I can't recall the source at the moment.

I don't know how that's breaking down in the United States but I don't see any reason for gay or lesbian animus towards straight women. Hello? We're all people. I can see a reason for animus towards Oprah magazine for running such a stupid story, though.

Regan DuCasse | January 13, 2010 4:51 PM

Well, Ms. Nair...I'm such a straight woman. I DO have that kind of friendship with lesbians and I'll say this:
I do think there is something to what I call the 'caring bridge' between men and women. I have ALWAYS believed that a person who is cis, gay and so on, is the part of the human race that could keep heteros from tearing each other up.
In a way, there is an equalizing factor going on.

In basic HUMAN relationships that have nothing to do with sex, it's an important factor to not be distracted by it either.
However, in the zeal to disconnect the human race from it's naturally fluid gender norms, certain cultures chose to make gender a rigid, unworkable matter of hierarchy and injustice.
I think it's unfortunate that some people are still working from stereotyped expectations, and aren't respecting individuals as compatible friends.

It IS refreshing to be around men not sexually attracted to me. And my lesbian girlfriends are like having the sibling I always wanted. I've been mistaken for a lesbian BECAUSE of my girlfriends and where we hang out. I want to laugh at the fear straight women talk about lesbians. It's something they ARE TAUGHT, and that is so patently clear. Despite having NO SUCH EXPERIENCE with lesbians, these straight women are just sure 'well, it will happen'!
Oh and FAR be it for them to listen to ME, whose life is immersed with many gay people, just as theirs isn't.
To bad for them, they ARE missing one of the reasons a life in diversity can be so complete.

It's great to have a MIX of ideas, feelings, understandings, questions and hopes.
I consider alliances between trans folks, gay and straight people to be very strong and I believe with all my heart that is what is supposed to happen.
I love having a mix of friends. Who are all VERY smart, creative and industrious people.
Speaking of which...

And Tobi, if you're reading this, I want to thank you for the input on my project. I just finished writing a scene and I'm working up the next one that involves the character I told you about. I'll be sending it to you and your input again, is welcome. Writing is rewriting, as they say.

I hope to talk to you weekend?
If you were here, I'd hug you!

Yeah, that attitude is so outdated. Over a decade ago, I was interviewed for a fluff piece in a mainstream magazine about women with gay male friends. (Well, they paid us.) I was the token bisexual woman - all the other women were of course straight. The quotes were semi-okay, but there was a box near the end of "10 reasons why gay guys make great mates". As it turns out, these include things like "Gay men have great taste in fashion and adore shopping!" and "You can share the cooking and have lots of fun!" Um ... what?

As it happens, I knew that the piece had been written by a lesbian, although I don't know if she'd compiled that list at the end. It was kind of weird because she'd previously interviewed me for a lesbian magazine and, on hearing that I identified as bi, grilled me a bit on my scene credentials, which I got the impression wouldn't have happened had I been a lesbian. So the feeling I came away with from the first interview was that I wasn't quite queer enough, while the second experience led to glib generalisations about gay men.

RIGHT ON, ALEX! You know I feel strongly about this one! Guess what? Ima letu finish, and now my next post is gonna track back to yours!

How's that for true friendship!


Another take on the study (along the lines with an earlier comment - correlation does not mean causation - but no one has really acknowledged that): maybe its results mean merely that the type of woman who has gay friends has higher self esteem? Or that if a woman happens to have actual, true friends who are gay (not ones she attempts to pick up for the purpose), she could end up with higher self esteem?

Sure the article makes it sound like it's a good idea for women to go search themselves out some gay man - doesn't matter which ones; apparently they're interchangeable! - as a self-help accessory, which is utterly ridiculous and insulting. But that doesn't mean there's not underlying truth to the study. I understand and agree with the reaction to the "you might want to add some gay men to your circle" crap - like, you might want to add vegetables to your diet; who *wrote* that???? - but what I'm bothered by is the apparent dismissal along the way, or at least lack of acknowledgment, of the truth to that study, of the real value and legitimacy and depth of so many friendships between gay men and straight women. There *is* a unique symbiosis there, for a lot of reasons.

I'm also not so sure I agree with the standard, "would she be friends with me if I were straight." My very best friends in the world are gay men (and a few lesbian and bi women, actually), and it makes no sense to me to ask myself, would I be friends with them if they were straight. They wouldn't be who they are if they were straight.

You forgot part of your title, Alex.

Oprah's website names gay men one of the top self-esteem boosters for women (But gays continue to rip each other to shreds)

Perhaps what they should have said is that men with feminine gender expressions make great friends for stereotypically feminine women. Or to make it even more specific, they look for men with feminine gender expressions that have interests in fashion and design for friendship. If it was this specific, I may have agreed with this study, but as it stands it conflates a feminine gender expression by a male with being gay. Now that's confusing!

What I find so freaking irritating about "the gay accessory"... that AGAIN and AGAIN is the conditioned perpetuating idea to women some need to be validated by MEN.

Gay or Straight... YOU women will feel better about yourself if you surround yourself w/male approval.

What horseshit.

This really annoys me.
People talk about sexuality not being an issue but then talk about befriending some just because they are gay.
Im not a collectors item and don't appreciate being treated as one.