This column is under the capable supervision of Renate Baumgartner and Soudeh Rad. Renate Baumgartner is currently researching bisexual women and their experiences of discrimination in Vienna, Austria. She holds a Ph.D. in natural sciences, is a bi+ activist, and offers workshops for bisexual empowerment. Soudeh Rad is an Iranian gender-equality activist based in France and cofounder of Dojensgara.org, a website about bisexuality in Persian. Some columns will be written by Renate, some by Soudeh – and some by both. If there is research on bisexuality that you would like them to be aware of, please write to them c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visible Lesbians – Invisible Bisexuals?
By Renate Baumgartner
Featuring the article: Nikki Hayfield, Victoria Clarke, Emma Halliwell, Helen Malson (2013) Visible lesbians and invisible bisexuals: Appearance and visual identities among bisexual women, Women’s Studies International Forum, 40, 172-182.
Is there a bi woman “look”? The stereotypical appearance of the “lesbian butch” and the “lesbian femme” are widely known (while culturally and historically variable), but is there something comparable for bisexual women? Although the idea that sexual identity can be read simply through physical appearance is partly rooted in stereotype, this question also points to a pressing issue: How do we recognize each other in the world? Are there visual codes that let our bi*dars ring? Is bisexuality perhaps less invisible than we thought?
We express ourselves and communicate with others by adorning and modifying our bodies through clothing, piercings, tattoos, haircuts, and make-up. We can choose to construct a particular “look” to be visible to others as members of a particular group (such as the goth or punk subculture) or as part of a coming-out process.
We can also choose a certain appearance to hide or to conform. Sexual minorities have used these forms of bodily expression to gain recognition from peers, to communicate membership within the LGBTQ community, and to make political statements.
This study explored bi women’s self-expression through their appearance through interviews with 20 self-identified bisexual women. It was conducted in the early 2000s in the UK, which is known for its lively bisexual activism. The study aimed to understand how and whether bi women combatted bisexual invisibility and bisexual erasure and made themselves visible as bisexual through appearance practices, such as clothing, body art, and cosmetics.*
The results revealed that the women understood bisexual visual identity in relation to lesbian visual identity. In comparison to a visible and widely recognized lesbian “look,” they spoke about an invisible bisexual appearance. They felt they had to choose between a lesbian and a heterosexual look, and they described their style as being something in between. They also said that their style was policed by others in different ways, dependent upon social contexts, but that they did not alter their self-expression based on the gender of their current partner. These results indicate that clothing and appearance play an important role in bi* women’s self-expression, but also that without a distinct style it is hard to recognize each other.
Does this sound familiar to you? Is visual appearance an important part of your identity and self-expression? Do you think your community has a particular bi woman “look”? Have certain queer or bisexual styles reached the mainstream: What about the trend of bi*-flag colored hair?
Questions asked were:
- Do you think your look is influenced by you being bisexual?
- Do you think that there is such a thing as a bisexual look?
- Do you remember making any changes to your appearance around the time you identified as bisexual?
- Do friends influence how you look? Do you think your appearance is influenced by your partner?
- Does your dress change according to where you are going out on ‘the scene’?