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How does the African-American culture affect the body image perception of its African- American women?
April 16, 2009
Cultural expectations, idealizations, and fixations serve to mold the accepted definitions of beauty and the ideal body-shape that ultimately contribute to the construct of body image throughout mankind. Society depicts a deep contrast between the ideal body images of women of African-American descent and Caucasian descent. The majority of white women are portrayed to lust after a thin, tall, size zero jeans body-type, whereas, the mainstream of black women are portrayed to lust after a curvier, voluptuous body-type. Studies have been conducted to reveal what exactly is the underlying reason for these stark contrasting body ideals for the two races. Many researchers point to the overall acceptance of fuller body shapes within the black community that has been perpetuated through the African-American culture.
Black Culture and Media’s Effect on Black Body Image
Cultures define images of desirable bodily appearances. The black culture in contemporary America can be defined as one that is multifaceted in that it ranges from constant issues concerning gang violence or unity throughout the community generated from President Barack Obama’s presidency. Moreover, black culture has been thoroughly saturated by the hip-hop culture that dates back to the 1980’s. In the hip-hop world, many antagonists state that the music created from this culture and ensuing music videos objectify women. Despite the flaws of hip-hop music and the future improvements that still need to be implemented, the vast majority of the women in the music videos tend to have fuller body shapes. Younger and younger generations are becoming the main audience of these music videos. When young female tweens see these women, they are shown women with unquestionable curves and hips. These reoccurring figures show women viewers that it is acceptable to have curves. In addition, it also shows that many black men are accepting of the curvier woman stature. Many of these women are showing up on Black Entertainment Television (BET), a cable network that airs a variety of music videos by black artists. BET is similar in some respects to MTV. One major difference between the two programs is its portrayal of women. MTV tends to broadcast women with petite, frail body shapes, the exact opposite of those on BET. In either case, this contrast ultimately shows that the media tends to portray the ideal women’s body shape depending on what is more acceptable in the culture and society of its general audience.
Black comedian and actress, Mo’Nique, holds an annual beauty pageant for full-figured women who are “fabulous and thick” on her television series, "Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance." The shows attempts to disprove myths about heavier girls and encourages heavy women and everybody around them to embrace fat women and to believe that they are beautiful too. Although the underlying message of the show is encouraging, it can also lead to an obesity problem. It is important for everybody to accept his or her curves and flaws. However, it is of even more importance that one realizes when he or she is unhealthy and reacts properly to it. Obesity is an ever-growing epidemic in our country. Celebrating obesity can be a potential problem and can set a detrimental example as one improperly equates loving herself with accepting an unhealthy lifestyle.
Black Women who are Affected
Even though the African-American society promotes a curvier woman body-shape, problems in eating disorders can occur when black women are immersed in a predominately-white society. These women are more susceptible to develop an eating disorder compared to their counterparts because of the different socially accepted body-shape in the white society. Unfortunately, though, these women are usually forgotten about because most of society still has a false belief that minorities cannot get eating disorders and that they only affect white, upper-class females. Shocking reports reveal that there are a good number of black women who may qualify for an eating disorder. Exact numbers of how many are suffering are not known because many black women do not seek treatment for them. Dr. Ruth Striegel-Moore, professor and chairwoman of psychology at Wesleyan University published an article in 2003 in The American Journal of Psychiatry, and “found that young black women were as likely as white women to report binge eating. In an earlier study, published in 2000 in Archives of Family Medicine, she found that black women were as likely as white women to report binge eating or vomiting and were more likely to report fasting and the abuse of laxatives or diuretics than their white peers” (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/20/health/psychology/20eat.html?pagewanted=all). There are various barriers in seeking professional help, including lack of financial resources and not knowing whom to contact. More African-American girls are beginning to develop eating disorders as they become more exposed to traditional white ideals of beauty according to doctors of this field. Therefore, efficient ways to identify symptoms and risk factors for the eating disorders of African-American females need to be developed.
Promotion of Obesity
With African-American women tending to embrace the fuller body type, also brings about potential overweight and obesity problems. In American women, obesity is one of the most serious public health threats. According to the American Obesity Association, black women have the highest prevalence of overweight women of any race, where 78% of black women are overweight. Black women also have the highest prevalence of obesity at 50.8% (http://obesity1.tempdomainname.com/subs/fastfacts/obesity_women.shtml). Obese women are more likely to suffer from cardiopulmonary disease, heart disease, some forms of cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. The same culture that condones a relatively bigger body shape for its women may also be responsible for the negative health effects on its women. Although it is good to have a realistic body-shape model, it is imperative to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes exercising and healthy eating habits in order to alleviate this dire condition.
Dr. Baturka, Hornsby, and Schorling conducted a study (Baturka et al., 2000) to explore the body image and weight issues among rural, African-American women. To achieve this, they obtained a sample of nine black women from the Alliance Black Churches and fifteen women from the community health center. The total number of women in this study was twenty-four. Their ages ranged from twenty-one to forty-seven. Five days a week for three months, interviews were taken at the health center. Interviews lasted between forty to sixty minutes, and the participants were compensated $20 for their participation. The interviews were tape-recorded, transcribed, and analyzed for common themes across three body mass index categories (obese, overweight, normal). Based on self-reported information by the twenty-four respondents, 50% were obese, 37.5% were overweight, and 12.5% were normal weight. Other results showed that 20.8% had some high school education, 50% were high school graduates, 29.2% had some college or more. The household income per year showed that 37.5% made less than $10,000, 33.3% made between $10,000-$35,000, and 29.2% made between $35,000-$50,000. 58.3% were single, 20.8% were married, and 20.8% were either divorced or widowed. 70.8% had one or more children and 29.2% had no children. There was an overwhelming amount of dissatisfaction among the respondents with their weights. Seventeen of the twenty-four stated that they would like to lose weight. Three were content about their weight but wanted smaller stomachs. One woman wanted to gain weight. One was completely content about her present weight. Two were ambivalent through the interview. Eleven of the twelve obese women wanted to lose weight, whereas six of the twelve overweight/ normal women wanted to lose weight (Baturka et al., 2000). However, during the interviews there were some fluctuations in satisfaction levels of one body’s type. Ten of the seventeen who wanted to lose weight said they were somewhat satisfied with their weight appearance. Health and clothing issues determined women’s satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their weight. Fourteen of the twenty-four women said they would not trade bodies with anyone in the world is they could. The theme of self-acceptance and valuing character were heavily apparent throughout the interviews. The importance of acceptance by others was also analyzed. About half the women said they have never faced much criticism from others about their weight and are actually encouraged not to lose weight. However, the other half of women had been criticized about weight gain from co-workers or distant relatives, not close friends and family. When the women were asked why they weighed what they did, the majority attributed it to God, family history, stress, aging, food availability, and post-pregnancy weight. Even though there are reported weight loss barriers, eighteen of the nineteen women who wanted to lose weight or reduce stomach size stated that they definitely had the ability to do so. In analyzing these results, researchers found that each woman had two counter voices; one that echoed her dissatisfaction with her weight and appearance and another one that that voices her self-acceptance. The women believed that their own behavior was somewhat responsible for their present weight, but believed that their physical and cultural environments were obstacles in changing their diets and weights. One flaw of this study was that the sample size was very small at twenty-four subjects. It is hard to generalize the results to a population with such a small sample size. Another problem with this study was the fact that these women were only interviewed one time. The results could have been more valid if these subjects were interviewed multiple instances over a course time. Their progress could then be tracked, compared, and contrasted with their initial responses.
Lotus Meshreki and Catherine Hansen of Northwestern State University (Meshreki et al., 2004) published an article to explore African-American men's preference of women's body size based on his racial identity beliefs and environment. The participants of this study included 133 undergraduate African-American males from predominately-white colleges (PWI), and 125undergraduate African-American males from HBCUs. All of the participants were recruited, but participation was voluntary. All the participants were also at least eighteen years old. PWI subjects reported a household income ranging from $0 to $320,000 and ranged in weight from 134 to 305 pounds. HBCU participants reported a household income ranging from $0 to $185,000 and ranged in weight from 120 to 350 pounds. A demographic questionnaire was used to obtain this information. The Racial identity Attitudes Scale-Short Form B (RIAS-B) is a self-reported inventory that measures the attitudes mirroring the first four of five statuses of Cross’s model of racial identity, Preencounter (pro-white/anti-black), Encounter (confused white/euphoric black), Immersion-Emmersion (idealized black/anti-white), and Internalization (internalized black/accepting white). The Figure Rating Scale was developed by Stunkard, Sorensen, and Schulsinger and is a silhouette measure that contains a series of nine silhouettes ranging from very thin to very fat. It is used to examine body image and ideal body size. Each of the participants from both groups completed the demographic questionnaire, RIAS-B, and silhouette measure. The results showed that there were no significant differences between age groups and income groups. The results between PWI and HBCU and their racial identity attitudes are outlined below (http://jbp.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/30/4/451.pdf).
Analyzing these results, the PWI students has significantly higher Preencounter and Internalized attitudes than the HBCU. The HBCU students scored significantly higher Immersion-Emmersion attitudes than PWI students. An interesting result revealed that PWI men preferred a larger body ideal than HBCU students This is surprising because one would hypothesized that the European American culture of a PWI would influence them to prefer a smaller body shape. Typically, if one is surrounded by his own culture, there is an increase in racial identity and increases self-esteem. Being surrounded by another culture, sometimes leads one to reject one's own culture. This study shows otherwise: the PWI men tended to prefer the fuller women's shape. Both PWI and HBCU men showed overall preferences to a curvier body shape than a thinner body shape for women. This is a respectable study. It used a good sample size. The techniques used to measure the variables were also efficient. The RIAS and Figure Rating Scale are established measurement techniques that have already been used by other researchers. If any improvements are needed, in this study, the findings can try to control for some additional confounding variables such as parental influence and racial socialization. In addition, this study could have used a more geographical diverse sample, rather than only south schools.
Beth Molloy and Sharon Herzberger of Trinity College conducted a study to investigate the perception of body image and self-esteem throughout black and white women (Molloy et al., 1998). 114 female students from two community-technical colleges in Connecticut were used as subjects. Forty-five were black and sixty-nine were white. Some characteristics of the black subjects included average age at 25.62, average height 5’5”, average weight 154.26 lbs. Some characteristics of the white subjects included average age at 29.22, average height 5’5”, average weight 142.67 lbs. At one college, students from a psychology course were asked to participate. Fifty students ended up participating, forty-one blacks and nine whites. At the other college, students from a psychology and sociology course were asked to participate. Sixty-four students participated, four black and sixty white. The subjects were asked to report basic information including age, race, social class, current height and weight, ideal height and weight, and dieting habits. Dieting habits were recorded as 1 for dieted in the past year and 2 for not dieting in the past year. The subjects took The Personal and Academic Self-Concept Inventory developed by Fleming and Whalen. It consisted of forty-five questions pertaining to self-regard, social acceptance, physical appearance, and basic abilities. Each question was rated on a scale 1 (practically never/not at all) to 7 (very often/very). The Body-Esteem Scale developed by Franzoi and Shields was also used. It lists thirty-two parts of the body which subjects rate on a scale of 1 (strong negative feelings) to 5 (strong positive feelings). The Body Size Drawings Inventory developed by Silberstein, Striegel-Moore, Timko, and Rodin was used. It assesses one’s body shape perception. This section included nine drawings of men and nine drawings of women depicting different body shapes. 1 was coded for anorexic and 9 coded for obese. The Ben Sex Role Inventory was also used to rate and scale sixty different personality characteristics. The scale ranged from 1 (never or almost never true) to 7 (always or almost always true). The results revealed that women who scored as more masculine on the BSRI scored higher on the PASCI and Body-Esteem measures and have a smaller gap between their ideal and actual body images. These women also have higher preferred body weights. The majority of these women are African-American. African-American women were also less likely to select the thin woman’s body shape as their ideal. “The present study suggests that the effects of race/ethnicity are largely attributable to racial/ethnic differences in masculinity and perceptions of the preferences for body size held by men” (Molloy et al., 1998). The study also suggests that African-American women are more likely to have protective factors than their white counterparts that shield them from developing low self-esteem and distorted body images. This study had some limitations. First of all, there was a relatively small sample size at 114. It is hard to generalize the results to a population with such a small sample size. Secondly, this study used self-reporting to collect its data. Although the data was collected anonymously, some of the participants could have either deliberately submitted incorrect information or might have not known the exact answer (ex: height and weight). Some participants could have not felt comfortable answering some of the questions too. In addition, a more diverse sample in regards to education, not just community college participants, could have been used to yield results that are more realistic.
Cunningham, 1995, Greenberg & Laporte, 1996, and Powell &Kahn,1995 found that black women tend to not conform to America’s stereotypical brand of beauty partly because of black men’s preferences. As established earlier, black men tend to prefer larger women. Hence, more black women do not feel the need to stay within a certain body weight in order to find a companion. This information was obtained from http://www.brown.uk.com/eatingdisorders/perez.pdf.
Researcher Arnold S. Kahn of James Madison University conducted research on the racial differences in women’s desires to be thin. The study utilized self-reports and found that white women, on average, chose a thinner ideal body size than black women did. White women also tended to be more worried about weight and dieting than black women because they felt more social pressure to be thin. White men were less inclined to date a heavier woman than black men and felt like they would be more ridiculed if they did (Kahn et al., 1994). This information was obtained from http://www.brown.uk.com/eatingdisorders/perez.pdf.
Multiple studies such as the ones from Abrams, Allen & Gray, 1993, Akan & Grilo, 1995, Rucker & Cash, 1992, Molloy & Herzberger, 1998, and Parker 1995 have found that eating disorders are most common in young white women and less common in black women. Parker et al., 1995 and Molloy& Herzberger, 1998 revealed that “cultural loyalty and strong ethnic identity protects black women from the thin ideal. Research by Akan& Grilo, 1995, Allan, Mayo, &Michael, 1993, and Casper &Offer, 1990 showed that black women are less likely to diet, less fearful of weight gain, and less negative towards overweight people. This information was obtained from http://www.brown.uk.com/eatingdisorders/perez.pdf.
Cultural influences have been known to affect women’s body image satisfaction, ideal body image, and attitudes and resulting behaviors. The traditions and values within each culture fluctuate from one ethnic group to another, and sometimes even within those ethnic groups. Many black women have a different view of an acceptable body-shape when compared to many white women. An appreciation and acceptance of a thin, tall model shape has been depicted through white media for decades. However, most of the black media and black men value a “thicker” body-shape that has been reinforced by the cultural aesthetic. Black women see the fuller body-shapes of black actresses and black role-models and use that image to define their personal ideal body-shape.
Although black women may be more accepting of their weight than other ethnicities, reports from the American Obesity Association and American Heart Disease show that this tolerance puts them at an increased risk of obesity. On the other end of the spectrum, some black women are usually left out of the debate about eating disorders because they are reported to not have those problems since much of the black community places so much emphasis on a fuller woman’s body. This is not the case, however, for more black women are becoming more susceptible to eating disorders as they become more acquainted with the mainstream media’s thin image of beauty. Prevention methods need to be developed to help alleviate both of these problems.
In the future, it will be interesting to see studies focusing on African-American women of varying socio-economic classes and the resulting prevalence of any eating disorder within each category. Most people would hypothesize that the higher socioeconomic class a black woman resides in, the higher chance that she would be susceptible to an eating disorder. This is because there would be a greater chance that this black female would be removed from traditional black culture and would might not value the full-figured shape as much.
In conclusion, mainstream society's emphasis on thinness has not had that much of an overall effect on African-American women. This can be attributed to the lack of social pressure to be thin coming from the African-American community and rooted in black culture.
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