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Body Image in African American Women

Vashti Dotson


Body image is an important facet in understanding the phenomenon of eating disorders. Body image concerns are important in the etiology and treatment of eating disorders and obesity (Smith, Thompson, Raczynski, and Hilner, 1997; Thompson, 1997). The construct of body image reflects the level of satisfaction one feels regarding his or her body. Body image is a multidimensional construct. It involves race, socioeconomic status, age, as well as, perceptual and attitudinal components. For this reason, research has been done to dispel the myth that all women have a negative body image. Rather, as has been shown, there are definite differences in the perception of body image and self-concept, especially across racial lines. The claims of most studies suggest that African-American women generally have a greater tolerance or acceptability for higher body weight. In addition, African-American women are also thought to place less importance on body size in the scheme of their overall body image, and there are more likely to be satisfied if they are at a higher body weight, and still regard themselves as attractive. Research not only confirms these statements, but also draws attention to other important, culturally- relevant factors, such as age in relation to other cultural forces such as, different attitudes and behaviors that shape the body images of African-American women. Finally, since research shows that body image is an important aspect in the etiology of eating disorders and obesity, its influence and the cultural forces and components behind it should be taken into account in treatment and for future research.

According to Altabe’s (1996) study, there are differences in body image that can be measured through both quantitative and qualitative means. The participant in the study were volunteer college students at the University of South Florida who were recruited from minority student organizations (Black Student Union, Asian Students Association, etc.) and received extra credit points in exchange for participation. The sample consisted of 150 males and 185 females, and the average age was 21. Ethnicity was determined by self-identification.

The measures used were the administration of the Body Dissatisfaction scale of the Eating Disorders Inventory, as well as, the Figure Rating Scale. This scale involves the participant looking at a series of silhouettes ranging in size, and asking them to choose which one best represents how they look and how they wished they looked. The discrepancy in these two indicates the level of body dissatisfaction. Participants were also subjected to several questionnaires that measure body image. Questions were included concerning cultural expectations and idealizations, as well as, physical attractiveness, and the importance of physical appearance (Altabe, 1998).

In the figure rating discrepancy, African-American women showed less dissatisfaction than Caucasians and Hispanic-Americans. In the non-weight related body image tests African-American women had more positive cognitions than all other groups, and overall, African-Americans had a higher rating of self-attractiveness. The qualitative analysis of data points out that height was a quality desired or valued by all groups, and all women wanted to be thinner. This suggest that African –American women can possess the desire for a more healthy or lean body shape without letting it destruct their image of themselves and sense of attractiveness. Lastly, the issue of skin tone was brought up among, African-American women. In African-American culture, both dark and light-skin tones carry stereotypes and idealizations that are deeply rooted in the history and experience of African-American in this country. Thus, undoubtedly has some effect on body image. This illustrates the importance of cultural facets of body image.

Also, Henriques, Calhoun, and Cann (1996) conducted a study to clarify the relationship between ethnicity and body satisfaction. In this study, 84 White women and 33 Black women were issued bogus positive or negative social feedback so the effect of the feedback on their body satisfaction could be measure. The body satisfaction of white women decreased with negative feedback and increased with positive feedback; however, this effect did not exist for the Black women (Henriques et al., 1996 ). The authors argue that this evidence supports the need to differentiate between ethnic groups when dealing with eating disorders and body image.

In the CARDIA study, Smith et al. (1997) examined body image among a population of men and women in a biracial cohort, and revealed that there are significant differences in body image across racial, as well as, gender lines. Body image measures were obtained from 1,837 men (45% Black) and 1,895 women (51% Black) by using measures of body size dissatisfaction and various subscales of the Multidimensional Body Self-Relations Questionnaire. Participants were re-examined in Year 2, 5, and again in Year 7. The participants in this study were recruited from four different geographic locations by community-based sampling, and through membership of a large prepaid health plan. Smith et al.(1997) claim that this sample of subjects is more reflective of the population than the studies that use the convient source of college students for studies. The sample of subjects was controlled for age, gender, and level of education by balancing each component out within the sample, and thus, eliminating potential effects of confounds. However, the recruitment of subjects through their membership in a prepaid health plan suggest that these are people who can afford health care of some type, which could possible result in differences in perception of health, self, and even body image. In addition, due to the length of the entire study the retention of participants dropped. By the 7th year, 85% of Whites and 75% of Blacks were retained from the original sample. This introduces the problem of attitude and behavioral shifts that occur with age. However, Smith et al.(1997) did not focus on body image as related to age within this study.

The measures used in this study included sociodemographic characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity, and years of education, which were obtained by a questionnaire. In addition, height and weight were measured order to compute the body mass index. In order to measure body image, the Figure Rating Scale was used to determine the Feel-Ideal discrepancy of the participants. Here participants were asked to choose their ideal figure and then they were asked to choose the figure they felt reflected how they actually perceived themselves. The greater the discrepancy between these two scores, the more dissatisfied one was with their body shape and size. The two subscales of the Multidimensional Body Self-Relation Questionnaire, the Appearance Evaluation subscale and the Appearance Orientation subscale were also used to assess body image. The content and nature of the questions was not discussed in the article. It would be interesting to examine the content of the questions to find if weight-related and non-weight related questions were asked to measure body image. Higher scores on the Appearance Evaluation subscale are associated with greater body satisfaction, and higher scores on the Appearance Orientation subscale reflect a greater importance on physical appearance.

The results of this study not only indicated that African-Americans was more interested in appearance that Whites, but that women were more interested than men. Women were also more displeased with their appearance than men. However, White men were more dissatisfied than Black men, and even though both Black and White women were similarly dissatisfied with appearance Black women were more dissatisfied than White women. In addition, across all groups those who had a high Body Mass Index were more dissatisfied than others. Overall, Smith et al. (1997) suggest that although Black women report similar discrepancies in ideal and current size, they possess some additional source of influence that allows them to feel attractive and satisfied with their appearance even when at higher body weight. The study suggests that these factors may be an additional interest and investment in physical appearance. Personal style and presentation are factors that effect one’s evaluation of attractiveness and body image. These are factors that need to be considered when discussing the body image of various cultural groups.

African-American women vary in their perception of body image because their definitions and descriptions of body weight are different (Gore, 1999). These differences are a result of influential variables such as social interaction, gender roles, and racial identity. Each of these factors take place within cultural context, and thus, can effect one’s perception and attitudes towards body image and the cultural demands and idealizations of one’s culture toward body image. The interaction of these facets is illustrated in the fact that African-American women’s frame of reference for normal body weight is much larger than the standard (Gore, 1999). Therefore, the larger ideal body weight that many African-American women embrace could possibly explain the consistency of positive body image and self-esteem independent of body size. This points to some aspect of culture that leads African-American women to believe that their ideal body size is supposed to be higher, and yet for the most part, they still maintain positive body image. There seems to be less social and cultural pressure for African-American women to equate beauty and thinness, and to conform to the standards that are largely based and validated on the image and figures of White women. Thus, as previously mentioned, there must be other factors that influence the conceptual definitions of body size and body image. Research by Bessellieu (1997) of a population of 205 African-American women, reveals that African-American women’s body image depended on their perception of body weight. This means that those women who were overweight but did not perceive themselves as being overweight had a more favorable self-image than those women who were overweight and acknowledged their weight status did. Also, dieting behaviors were found only in those women who had a history of weight problems. Bessellieu (1997) also notes that body image in these women was related to broad definitions of beauty that were based more on personal characteristics such as attitude, and less on physical appearance. Lastly, the author of this study did not establish a positive relationship between racial identity and satisfaction of body image, but it was found that negative racial identity was related to body dissatisfaction. This could possibly relate to the findings of Altabe (1997) which discussed skin tone as a non-weight related component of body image. The issue of dark skin versus light skin, as well as, one’s cultural experience with the stereotypes and idealizations regarding both is a possible area of study for future research in the definitions of beauty and body image in African-American women.

In addition, there is also evidence to explain how African-American women deal with the drive for thinness that is so powerful in American society. Resarch at Old Dominion University illustrates that not only do White women report a significantly thinner body size than Black women, but they also reported greater social pressure to be thin than Black women (Powell & Kahn, 1995). There was also information presented that revealed White men had less desire to date a woman of heavier ideal body size than Black men for a greater fear of be ridiculed. Powell and Kahn (1995) suggest that these factors reflect a lack of strong social pressure to be thin for African-American women, thus, possibly explains the higher ideal weight of African-American women and their lessened concern with dieting. The greater acceptability of African-American men to be with a women who has higher body size also seems to be an important component to the total body image of African-American women. According to Williamson (1998), it seems that the African-American community has a greater acceptance of fuller figures and larger body sizes. This serves to protect African-American women to a certain extent from feeling the need to succumb to the pressures of the more dominant American culture, which does not value the features and physiques typical of many African-American women. These factors could lead to possible explanations of the low number of African-American women with eating disorders compared with White women.

Age is also an interesting aspect in examining the idea of body image. Body image is a multidimensional psychological construct that is subject to alterations due to experiences. With African-American women attitudes shift with age regarding body image and thinness as illustrated in the following two studies. In a study of 613 preadolescent Black and White girls were given various tests, such as Drive for Thinness Scale, a Criticism about Weight Scale, and the Self-Perception Profile for Children (Striegel-Moore, Schreiber, Pike, Wilfley, and Roden, 1995). Results revealed that both groups associated the drive for thinness with adiposity; however, African-American girls were influenced by criticism about weight and young White girls were influenced more by physical appearance. According to Striegel-Moore, et al. (1995) the most stunning finding was that there was a greater drive for thinness among young African-American girls. This is surprising due to the low prevalence of anorexia and the higher rate of obesity in African-American women (Striegel-Moore, et al., 1995). This study sparks a desire to know more about the vulnerability of approaching puberty and how that plays into the already existing cultural conceptualizations about body size, as well as, how young pre-adolescent African-American girls fit into the dominant culture of society. In contrast, Stevens, Kumanyika, and Keil (1994) reveal that elderly Black women were more likely to feel satisfied with their body weight, and less likely to diet or to feel guilty after a meal. This study reflects that there is are attitudinal and behavioral changes that occur with age that result in a more positive body image. Also, research on college undergraduates on self-esteem as a function of race and weight reveal that post-adolescent attitudes regarding weight and body image are more positive. Here, 205 White and 70 Black females with an average age of 21.9 were tested using various measures, such as the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale and three subscales of the Eating Disorder Inventory (Drive for Thinness, Bulimia, and Body Dissatisfaction). These tests were administered in the form of questionnaires that the participant filled out, and then screened for the variable of weight and diet preoccupation (WDP). As revealed by Jones, M.Moulton, P.Moulton, and Roach (1999), the results show that not only do Black women have a higher ideal body weight, but White women scored higher WDP than Black females (9.65 and 8.5 respectively). There was also a difference in the self-esteem scores of both groups, with Black women showing a higher average than White women (Jones et al., 1999). Jones et al. (1999) report that although both Black and White females posses the desire to lose weight, their ideals contrast regarding ideal and actual weight. In addition, this study reveals that Black women do not equate higher weight with being unattractive, and this attitude becomes more prominent with age.

In conclusion, research shows that African-American women consistently report greater acceptability for higher body weight, as well as, higher ideal body weights, while still maintaining positive perceptions of body image. Cultural idealizations and expectations serve to shape and mold the definitions and descriptions of beauty and body that contribute to the construct of body image in African-American women. This is exemplified in the lack of social pressure to be thin and the lessened social negativity toward obesity in the African-American community. It is actually somewhat surprising that African-American women continue to have a high body image even though the standards of the dominant cultural forces point toward more European standards. The ultimate blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 5’10, an thin White women has for many years been the standard off of which all other beauty was based, judged, and validated. Thus, the stability of the African-American woman’s positive body image seems to be quite a feat in the midst of a culture that looks upon the curves that typify many women, in addition to African-American women as unattractive and even unhealthy. Therefore, one’s specific culture seems to provide necessary interactions that contribute to body image. The data pointed out by Powell and Kahn (1995), that discusses the greater likelihood of Black men to accept a woman of higher body weight brings forth the possibility of affirmed sexuality by male counterparts as a key component in African-American women’s perception of body image. Age is also an important factor in evaluating body image because attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions are subject to change with age. As previously noted by Striegel-Moore (1995), attitudes of pre-adolescent girls are not reflective of the attitudes of post-adolescent African-American women. There is a shift in attitude that causes an adjustment in perception. Overall, the body image of African-American women is less effected by body size, and the total perception of body image consists of various components and factors of African-American culture. In the future, the strong cultural influence on body image should be considered in the evaluation of all women in regards to the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders. Further research on specific aspects of body image such as, how eating behaviors factor in are suggested to better understand this topic as it relates to the larger issue of eating disorders.



1. Altabe, M. (1998). Ethnicity and body image: Quantitative and qualitative

analysis. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 23, 153-9.

2. Bessellieu, Leslie. (1997). The meaning of weight and body image in African

American women (Dissertation, 1997). Dissertation Abstracts International,


3. Gore SV. (1999). African-American women’s perceptions of weight: paradigm shift

for advanced practice. Holistic Nursing Practices, 13, 71-9.

4. Henriques, GR, Calhoun, LG, & Cann A. (1996). Ethnic differences in women’s body

satisfaction: An experimental investigation. Journal of Social Psychology, 136,


5. Jones, S., Moulton, M., Moulton P., & Roach, S. (1999). Self-esteem differences as a

function of race and weight preoccupation: Findings and Implications. Women’s Health Issues, 9, 50-55.

6. Powell, AD. & Kahn, AS. (1995). Racial Differences in women’s desire to be thin.

International Journal of Eating Disorders, 17, 191-5.

7. Smith, DE, Thompson, JK, Raczynski, JM, Hilner, JE. (1999). Body image among

men and women in a biracial cohort: the CARDIA study. International Journal of

Eating Disorders, 25, 71-82.

8. Stevens, J., Kumanyika, SK, & Keil, JE. Attitudes toward body size and dieting:

Differences between elderly black and white women. American Journal of Public

Health, 84, 1322-5.

9. Striegel-Moore, RH., Schreiber, GB., Pike, KM., Wilfley, DE.,& Rodin J. (1995).

Drive for thinness in black and white preadolescent girls. International Journal of

Eating Disorders, 18, 59-69.

10. Williamson, L. (1998). Eating disorders and the cultural forces behind the drive for

thinness: Are African-American women really protected. Social Work in Health

Care, 28, 61-73.


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