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The Link between Race and Body Image

Jadienne Lord

May 4, 2010

Body image depends on a personís perception of his or herself, itís not necessarily how the person looks on the outside, but how they think they look. There are many factors that can influence someoneís body image. Some examples of this are personality types, body size, the media, or family and friends. Having a negative body image, depending on oneís size can also depend on the personís race or ethnicity. For some reason studies have shown that some races are more accepting of larger body size (in women) which it turn allows them to have a more positive body image than someone of a different race and same size. Although this may be due to cultural differences, itís also possible that discrepancies in dieting history contributed to these differences in body image. A negative body image can lead to various health problems, such as anorexia, bulimia, or body dysmorphic disorder, so knowing the different factors that influence body image can help when attempting to find ways to prevent these disorders.

Attractiveness in African American and Caucasian Women: Is Beauty in the Eye of the Observer

The Study:

Normally body image studies focus on thinness as the major component of attractiveness. This study sought to prove that African American women may hold a different view of attractiveness, that goes beyond just size. It suggests that dress attire and race all lend to attractiveness. One hundred and sixty women participated in the study (eighty African American and eighty Caucasian) and they all lived in the Washington D.C. area. The average age was around forty-one, the average income was $50,000, and the average BMI (body mass index) was overweight (28.30). In order to test each personís body image, they were shown a model (a silhouette with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.8) shaded to be either African American or Caucasian. The silhouettes reflected the different categories of BMI (underweight, normal weight, overweight, class 1 obese, and class 2 obese) and one set were dressed to determine the effect of clothing on the attractiveness scale. The participants were also given the Resenberg Self-Esteem Scale (10 questions using a Likert scale, from strongly disagree to strongly agree to assess self-esteem) to fill out and the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure. (Davis et al, 2010)

The Results:

Although the mean age and BMI of the African American women were higher, they scored higher on the RSE, meaning they had higher self-esteem (3.69 versus 2.90). Their score on the MEIM was also higher (3.00 versus 2.63). Contrary to the various hypotheses of the study, there were very few differences between African American and Caucasian womenís views on attractiveness. †Both preferred the thinner, dressed and African American models. (Davis et al, 2010)

Potential Problems With the study:

Facial features are often thought to be a determining factor of attractiveness, therefore using generic models may have hindered some of the participants abilities to determine whether the model was attractive or not. Also it was not considered that Caucasian women may have a multifactorial view on attractiveness as well, which would have impacted the hypotheses that thinner, paler models would be more aesthetically pleasing to them. Also the BMI used to determine the thinner models may have been high enough that it was still preferable to the African American woman, although it was thinner than the normal BMI range.

Ethnic and Racial Differences in Body Size Perception and Satisfaction

The Study:

In this study they discussed how women from different racial and ethnic groups viewed their body size and their body satisfaction. The study consisted of 4023 female U.S. residents, ages 25-45, divided into four age groups. The mean age was around 35 and the mean BMI was overweight/borderline obese at 29.26. They were divided into the races of White, Black or African American, Asian, Pacific Islander (or Native Hawaiian), American Indian (or Alaskan Native), Hispanic. Other variables included age, education level, socioeconomic status, partner status, height, and weight. All participants were shown various silhouettes and asked which was closest to what they currently looked like, and which would they prefer to look like. (Kronenfeld et al, 2010)

The Results:

Both Asian and African American women chose significantly smaller silhouettes when asked which about their current silhouette when compared to white women was. In Hispanic women there was no significant difference whether controlling for BMI or not. After controlling for BMI the Asian choice was no longer significantly smaller, but the African American choice remained about the same. In preferred silhouette, the largest amount of people chose silhouette number four throughout the races. When looking at the larger silhouettes, African Americans and Hispanics had the most people choosing them over the smaller ones. Asians more greatly preferred silhouette number three and subsequent smaller silhouettes, with whites following close behind. These results show that African American women perceive themselves as smaller than white women with similar BMIís and the African Americanís (and Other) group preferred the larger silhouettes, as compared to the white women. On the measure of body dissatisfaction, African American Women scored the lowest. (Kronenfeld et al, 2010)

Problems with the Study:

This was a self-reported survey, and often women underestimate their weight and overestimate their height, which can prove to be a problem due to the fact that height and weight are the criteria for BMI. Also the participants needed internet access to complete the survey, which may not be true for the general population. Also the sample sizes were small, which allows for some deviance from what would be true for the majority of the general population.

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

The Study:

In the past there has been more attention paid to body image based on gender, rather than race. In this they hope to examine the relationships between body image, race, and gender. The participants were 120 college students from a northeastern or southwestern university, 20 male and female students in each of the three racial/ethnic groups (African American, European American, and Latino/a American). Participant age ranged from 18-49 years old. The mean BMI was a ďnormalĒ 23.60, but ranged from 17.0 to 37.39. In this study, they used a background informational sheet, the multidimensional body-self relations questionnaire, the body esteem scale, and the balanced inventory of desirable responding (version 6). (Miller et al, 2007)


Appearance was equally important to all the groups, but beyond that there were many differences. There were gendered differences on global body image and weight concern. African Americanís scored highest (significantly) on Appearance Evaluation and Body Areas Satisfaction. African American women rated themselves significantly higher than European American women on the Sexual Attractiveness test, with Latina American women in the middle. African American women were also shown to have a higher sense of self esteem regarding their weight. (Miller et al, 2007)

Potential Problems with the Study:

The amount of participants, or at least representatives from each group, was very small which could have effects on the results. Also all the participants were in college, which means the study does not truly represent the general population. Another problem was the extreme variance in BMI in such a small study could have warranted some deviance in results, for example if all the overweight people were of a certain race, their body image scores will reflect that.

Associations among Body Size Dissatisfaction, Perceived Dietary Control, and Diet History in African American and European American Women

The Study:

Ethnic differences in body image and control over oneís diet among women have often been reported. According to previous studies European American women have larger amounts of body dissatisfaction and less dietary constraint as compared to African American women. They also consistently report more dieting attempts, which implies that they experience more failed dieting attempts. This study had 89 participants, 43 European American and 46 African American, aged 20-41, all with an overweight body mass index.† They were randomly assigned to one of three weight loss intervention groups, diet only, diet and resistance training, and diet and aerobic training. Participants lost weight until they obtained a BMI under 25 and were given questionnaires prior to the weight loss, after the weight loss and at a one year follow up. Body image was measured with a Stunkard Figure Rating Scale (select a number 1 (leanest) to 9 (largest) to identify current self-perceived body size and ideal body size, difference between the two equals body dissatisfaction).(Laney et al, 2009)

The Results:

European American women were consistently more dissatisfied with their weight at all points, shown through the questionnaires, although between the post-weight loss and one year follow up African American women gained more weight. During this time period emotional eating worsened to a similar degree for both and self-efficacy (the belief that one is capable of performing a certain way in order to obtain goals), though unchanged for African American women was reduced for European American women. Although European American women had longer dieting histories, this only had a small influence on the baseline ethnic differences in the self-reported body dissatisfaction questionnaires. African American women tended not to overestimate their body size and sometimes underestimated. (Laney et al, 2009)

Problems with the Study:

The study does not address other factors that could contribute to a negative body image, culturally, which does not necessarily mean ethnically. In the discussion however, the thin ideal that is internalized for white women and the acceptance of larger women by the African American community is spoken on. The fact that food was given to the participants may have altered their sense of control over their diet, and the measure used to obtain the history has not been validated elsewhere, so it may be a possible limitation. A more specific diet history may have an impact on the results. Also the discussion states that neither factor that was tested was the reason why the results were as such and that future research should focus on underlying cultural differences rather than ethnicity alone.


All of the studies I used had similar results, especially when focusing on African American women in comparison to the European American. This result was that the African American women had a more positive body image, when compared to European or Caucasian women of the same body type. European American women also tended to have previously attempted dieting more times, and overall be dissatisfied with their bodies. One problem with these studies is that so many other variables, including age, education, socioeconomic status, and partner status. All of these could be huge influences on body image. The best conclusion is that more studies would have to be done accounting for all of the factors before determining whether race is the most influential on body image.

Sources Used:

Dawnavan S. Davis, Tracy Sbrocco, Angela Odoms-Young,† and Dionne M. Smith.(2010).Attractiveness in African American and Caucasian Women: Is Beauty in the Eye of the Observer? Eating Behaviors. 11(1):25-32

Lauren W. Kronenfeld, Lauren Reba-Harrelson, Ann Von Holle, Mae Lynn Reyes and Cynthia M. Bulik.(2010). Ethnic and Racial Differences in Body Size Perception and Satisfaction. Body Image. 7(2):131-136

Katherine J. Miller, David H. Gleaves, Tera G. Hirsch, Bradley A. Green, Alicia C. Snow, and Chanda C. Corbett. (2007). International Journal of Eating Disorders. 27(3):310-316

Paula C. Chandler-Laney, Gary R. Hunter, Nikki C. Bush,† , Jessica A. Alvarez,† , Jane L. Roy, Nuala M. Byrne,†† and Barbara A. Gower.(2009). Associations Among Body Size Dissatisfaction, Percieved Dietary Control, and Diet History in African American and European American Women. Eating Behaviors. 10(4):202-208







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