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Do race and culture affect women’s body images and their development of eating disorders?

Sarah DeAgostino

October 1, 2010


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Across the world there are many different people of various shapes and sizes. People of all different body sizes exist, but there is still a stereotypical perfect size and shape for both men and women.  Although ideal types exist, the “perfect body” is different in each culture and also differs based on a person’s race.  Does this mean that women of a certain culture and race are more likely to develop eating disorders?  Also how does membership in a certain culture influence a woman’s image of her body?  This paper will discuss these questions alongside of the studies that have worked toward finding the answers. 

The correlation between body image and the development of eating disorders:       

Body image is defined as a subjective picture of one's own physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others (  While people generally are not completely happy with their body’s shape and size, most understand that there is only so much one can do to change their physical appearance (Pliner et al., 1990).  Although techniques such as plastic surgery and exercise may make your body look better, everyone still has a basic body shape that cannot be changed completely.  Some people do not understand that they have a certain body type and as a result strive for a body shape and size that is unattainable.  Many people with these unrealistic goals either already have or eventually develop eating disorders in an effort to achieve this unrealistic body.  People with eating disorders stereotypically do not have a positive body image.  A negative body image in moderation is relatively normal, but extreme cases of a poor body image can, and usually do, lead to the development of an eating disorder ( The three main eating disorders associated with a negative body image are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.  Binge eating disorders are the most common out of the three, but anorexia and bulimia are serious and evenly sometimes deadly types of eating disorders.  Anorexia nervosa is a form of eating disorder where an individual has an inability to maintain a weight that would be considered the minimum weight healthy enough for a person of that age and height ( Similarly, but also different in some key symptoms and diagnoses, bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder where a person binges on food, regularly overeats, and feels a loss of control.  A person with bulimia uses either laxatives or vomiting to prevent weight gain (  Through an understanding of body images and their effects on different people and knowledge of various eating disorders are, people will be able to more fully understand studies attempting to link the two concepts.

Comparisons of Body Image Dimensions by Race/Ethnicity and Gender in a University Population:           

A study conducted in 1998 by Katherine Miller, David Gleaves, Tera Hirsch, Bradley Green, Alicia Snow, and Chanda Corbett examined the relationships between various body image dimensions and both gender and race.  The interaction between the two subjects was also studied.  Conflicting messages from a person’s racial/ethnic group and the dominant group make people of color in the United States effectively bicultural. Miller’s study had a fourfold purpose.  The main purpose, stated earlier in more general terms, was to examine gender and race and the interaction of the two on body image dimensions.  The second purpose was to include three racial/ethnic groups; this was important for the study because most previously recorded studies similar to this one only used two racial/ethnic groups which were usually African American and Caucasian. Another purpose was to be more comprehensive in measuring body image by assessing feelings about body parts significant to race/ethnicity.  The fourth and final purpose of this study was to measure and control for many different variances that included age, body size, socioeconomic status, and social desirability.  The people leading this study believed that the interaction of gender and race had not been adequately studied, and when this interaction had been previously studied the focus drifted toward socioeconomic status and age. 

            Miller’s study utilized 120 college students from either a northeastern or southwestern university.  The gender was distributed evenly with 20 male and 20 female students in each of the three racial groups involved- African American, European American, and Latino/a American.  Even though the gender composition was the same for both the northeastern and southwestern sites, the southwestern university had more European Americans and the northeastern university had more African Americans.  The age of the participants varied from 18-49 years old but had no correlation with gender or ethnicity.  The body mass index (BMI) of the participants fluctuated from 17.0 to 37.39 and there were no differences based on ethnicity.  Also it is noted that there was not a significant socioeconomic status difference between the two sites but there was a racial/ethnic difference with African Americans and European Americans having a higher socioeconomic status than Latino/a Americans.  The measurements used to calculate variables in the study included a Background Information Sheet on demographic and weight, the Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire, the Body Esteem Scale, and the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding.  (Miller et al., 1998) 

Results showed that appearance was equally important to all six groups tested.  But beyond this main similarity there were a large number of differences based on both gender and ethnicity.  Conclusions suggest that gender differences are relatively consistent across racial/ethnic groups, but it was found that women have more racial and ethnic differences in terms of body image than men.  Even when attempting to control socioeconomic status, age, and social desirability, differences between the races were still observed.  African Americans scored the highest on Appearance Evaluation and Body Areas Satisfaction, and scored above the European Americans on the Body Esteem Scale.  African American women also rated themselves higher on Sexual Attractiveness than the European American women did; Latinas scored in between the other two.  Overall the European American women’s scores on the various tests showed they are less self-confident than other groups.  This could be the link to body concerns and eventual eating disorders being so prevalent and stereotypical in European American women.  This study does not believe that all of the conclusions made can immediately answer all questions about body images dealing with race/ethnicity.  Yet it does give evidence that the variables measured in this study need to be considered and it expands the database for future studies about race/ethnicity and body image.  (Miller et al., 1998)


Body Image: Gender, Ethnic, and Age Differences:            

Another study was led by Jack Demarest and Rita Allen at Monmouth University in 2000.  Many past studies have only dealt with white, middle class college students, so the question of the role of ethnicity in body shape perceptions was examined in this study.  Another variant in the study was age.  It can be asked whether age affects body image and, if so, in what ways.  All of the previous studies that used age as a variable came to different conclusions.  (Demarest and Allen, 2000)

Demarest and Allen examined gender, ethnic, and age differences in body-shape dissatisfaction and the amount of distortion in estimating the preferences for attractiveness in the opposite sex.  This study did not use the regular methods, such as interviews or surveys, because of the many flaws involved with these methods.  For example, surveys do not reveal the degree of dissatisfaction that people have with their shape.  Similarly the interview method raises questions about if people answer based on perceived socially acceptable responses.  The method used in this study was developed by Fallon and Rozin in a 1985 study with the use of figure drawings to evaluate body image distortion and how it relates to ethnic and racial differences. 

The group for the study consisted of 120 African American, Hispanic, and Caucasian college students.  There were an equal number of males and females with 20 of each in the different ethnic groups.  Half of the participants in the group were under the age of 25 years and the other half were older than 30 years.  These participants were asked to take a brief survey about body-size preferences.  The figure drawings consisted of nine figures in order from thin to heavy, one with female bodies and the other with male bodies.   The pictures correspond to numbers on a scale from 10-90.  The participants chose figures based on four criteria.  They chose the figure that they felt approximated their current figure, the figure that he/she would like to resemble, the figure that he/she thought was the most attractive to the opposite sex, and the opposite-sex figure that he/she found the most attractive.  Then they would choose the corresponding number on the scale previously mentioned. 

The results of this study were somewhat surprising.  Dissatisfaction is the self-perception that the current body shape is larger than the ideal.  The only noteworthy finding for dissatisfaction was the large difference between genders.  As most people would assume without conducting a study, women were much more dissatisfied with their current shapes than men.  Distortion is the mistaken belief that members of the opposite sex prefer thinner or bulkier shapes than what is actually preferred.  The men’s distortion was that women would prefer bulkier shapes than the ones that were actually chosen by the women in the study.  On the contrary, women assumed men would prefer thinner shapes than those chosen by the men.  The African American women had the most accurate view of what men valued in attractiveness and the Caucasian women had the most distorted perception of what men preferred.  Significant results also dealt with age.  This study revealed that younger participants were the ones with the most distorted views of what the opposite sex preferred and found attractive.  (Demarest and Allen, 2000)

The data in this study were relatively consistent with that found in previous similar studies.  The women all perceived their figures as heavier than their ideal figure and heavier than what the men preferred.  Ethnic differences however, were not completely consistent with previous studies.  The Caucasian women were not necessarily more dissatisfied with their body shapes than the other two groups, but the Caucasian women did have the highest level of distortion in what their own bodies looked like and in what men preferred.  This means that Caucasian women have the highest level of low body self-esteem and a distortion in how others perceive them. 

The conclusions made in this study were not finalized.  The age range of the study was significantly limited, the data used was only based on students at one college, and the figure drawings were the only method used to measure body image.  The conductors of the study also advised that the research be repeated and a broader group of the population be used. (Demarest and Allen, 2000)

Ethnic and Racial Differences in Body Size Perception and Satisfaction:        

A recent study in 2009 was performed by Lauren Kronenfeld et al., and was funded by the University of North Carolina and Self magazine.  This study was put into action because it seems that there have been very few studies conducted with adults that have showed differences in body satisfaction based on ethnic groups, making it important to find the connections between culture and race in terms of body image.  (Kronenfeld et al., 2010)

Similar to the figure drawings in the last study, the silhouette-based approach was used in this experiment.  It is a widely used approach in many recent studies.  The only negative aspect of using a silhouette is the criticisms from various sources that it is culturally insensitive.  This study had three main goals: it “determined the extent to which women across racial and ethnic groups used the figural stimuli in a similar manner; explored racial and ethnic differences in current, preferred silhouette as well as in the discrepancy measure; and determined the extent to which any observed differences were due to BMI.” (Kronenfeld et al., 2010)

The study used 4023 female U.S. residents who were between the ages of 25-45 years old and also had computer access.  Participants were asked to complete an online survey and were given incentive to do so by a chance to win a drawing for a monetary prize.  The online questionnaire not only included the silhouette figural stimuli questions, but also included questions about eating and dieting.  Two questions were asked about the silhouette and the person was supposed to pick a silhouette based on their actual size and their ideal size.  The racial and ethnic identities of the participants were self-reported.  Some other self-reported demographics collected included age, education level, socioeconomic status, partner status, height, and weight.

Many conclusions were drawn from this experiment.  Asian women chose a smaller silhouette to represent their current body size which made sense because their self-reported BMI was overall lower than any other groups.  Also African American women chose a smaller silhouette than Caucasian women to reflect their current size.  This is hypothesized to be related to the social and cultural norms that are said to influence the acceptance of larger body sizes in African American women and the thin problem in Caucasian women.  It shows that African American women from this study have a better perception of what their body actually looks like as opposed to the warped views found in this study among many of the Caucasian women. When body satisfaction was measured, African American women scored the lowest in their dissatisfaction.  Having a high level of body dissatisfaction is a risk factor for extreme weight control practices in an attempt to achieve ideal body shape and size. 

More in-depth research would further the understanding of racial and ethnic differences in dealing with the satisfaction of body image and size.  Other research would also be a good starting point for developing culturally sensitive preventions and treatments of eating disorders.  There were also some important limitations of this study.  Participants were volunteers who took a survey online.  Therefore even though the results were as accurate as possible there could still have been many errors throughout the study.  The information was self-reported which gives the participant free reign to under or over report their information.  Even with these limitations the results still show a difference across race in both body size preference and satisfaction.  Further studies with a larger pool of participants would be necessary to try and draw any definite conclusions about the individual differences between race and body image.  (Kronenfeld et al., 2010)


After investigating and reading many studies, it can be concluded that although much more research in this topic is necessary to fully understand the link between race and culture as factors that contribute to eating disorders and lead to different views of body image, there almost certainly is a correlation among all of these factors. All three of the studies discussed had many common ideas, but also some variations.  Sorting through the variations, making hypotheses and testing through more studies on these topics would be very beneficial to a more thorough understanding of the interplay among race, culture, body image, and eating disorders. 

Miller et al.’s study of the “Comparisons of Body Image Dimensions by Race/Ethnicity and Gender in a University Population” came to one major conclusion.  In that study the European American women displayed the least self-confidence out of the three racial groups.   This could be, but is not necessarily, a link to explain why eating disorders seem more common in Caucasian women and less prominent in women of other races.  (Miller et al., 1998)

In the next study conducted by Jack Demarest and Rita Allen in 2000, the previously constructed method of figure drawings was used.  The data and conclusions formed in this study were extremely similar to that of previous studies when testing between males and females.  But the results of ethnicity did not completely follow the normal stereotypical ideals.  For the women, all three of the racial groups seemed to have the same amount of dissatisfaction with their bodies.   But it was the Caucasian women who had the highest level of distortion.  These two problems again are seen as risk factors for developing an eating disorder, but risk factors alone are not enough to prove that eating disorders are more of a problem in a certain race or ethnic group.  (Demarest and Allen, 2000)

In the last study discussed, Lauren Kronenfeld et al. devised an online survey for women to take in 2009.  The study displayed that the Caucasian women in the study believed their body size was larger than actual while African American women were closer to reporting the actual size and shape of their bodies.  This study again shows distortion in all women’s images of their own body, and especially distorted self-perception in Caucasian women.  Once again, this is a risk factor for the development of an eating disorder but does not necessarily mean everyone with a negative body image has an eating disorder.  (Kronenfeld et al., 2010)

It can be concluded that race and culture both do affect women’s body images and their likelihood of developing an eating disorder.  Although this is true there are still many unclear factors left to be answered.  As previously noted more studies should be conducted to find out why and how race and culture affect women in this way.  Answers to these queries would open doors to finding more productive ways of preventing, diagnosing, and treating eating disorders. 


Works Cited

Davis, Dawnavan S., et al. "Attractiveness in African American and Caucasian women: Is beauty in the eyes of the observer?" Eating Behaviors 11.1(2009): 25-32.

Demarest, Jack, and Rita Allen. "Body Image: Gender, Ethnic, and Age Differences." The Journal of Social Psychology 140.4 (2000): 465-472.

Kronenfeld, Lauren W., et al. "Ethnic and racial differences in body size perception and satisfaction." Body Image 7.2 (2010): 131-136.

Miller, Katherine J., et al. "Comparisons of Body Image Dimensions by Race/Ethnicity and Gender in a University Population." International Journal of Eating Disorders 27.3 (2000): 310-316.

Pliner, Patricia, Shelly Chaiken, and Gordon L. Flett. "Gender Differences in
     Concern with Body Weight and Physical Appearance Over the Life Span."
     Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 16.2 (1990): 263-273






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