Racial Identity and the Development of Body Image Issues among African American Adolescent Girls

Article excerpt

This study focuses on the impact of race, and its intersection with gender, in influencing and/or preventing the development of disordered body image. Specifically, Black samples are examined to see the role that racial identity plays in the process of developing such attitudes. Using qualitative data analysis methods rooted in grounded theory, the study finds that race is intrinsically linked to the notion of self-esteem, noninternalization, and maternal support, and that in turn these factors serve to prevent the African American sample from the development of body image dissatisfaction. Key words: African-American, Adolescents, Body Image, and Racial Identity


The female body is a cultural artifact, defined and redefined over time in response to broad cultural and historical transformations. Historically, this body has taken on a tubular and slender form in eras in which the female mind has become more politically, economically, and socially independent. One need only reflect upon the popular image of the 1920s flapper and the 1970s fashion models to observe the validity of such an assertion. Ironically, when women are "demanding more space" in terms of equality of opportunity, there is a cultural demand that they "should shrink" (Hesse-Biber, 1991, 1996; Wolf 1992). The demand for weight loss thus becomes the social byproduct of political gain.

This notion of the body as a historical canvas gains further impetus when intersected with economic forces. Not only have the more recent cases of body image dissatisfaction and eating disorders been a reflection of the many cultural and historical transformations aimed at profiting from and maintaining the subordination of women (Foucault, 1977; Martin, 1987; Michie, 1987; Turner, 1984), but they have also been a reflection of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy have sought to reap monetary benefits from this gender oppression. The food, diet, and fitness industries, aided by the media, have systematically convinced women that independence means self-improvement, self-control, and the duty to achieve the ultra slender body ideal. Furthermore, because this ideal is so unrealistically thin, the American 'body industries' have gluttonously consumed immense profits by feeding insecurities and starving bodies. For as confidence in one's body decreases, the sale of low-fat foods, diet pills, and exercise bikes increases. Women are literally buying into this 'Cult of Thinness' (Hesse-Biber, 1996) and the promise of perfect lives for those with perfect bodies.

Yet what many body image experts have failed to acknowledge is the way in which these capitalistic and patriarchal notions of beauty affect women within different racial/ethnic groups. Their research has focused exclusively on the experiences of White women, assuming that their behaviors and attitudes are universal to all women regardless of ethnicity. The reason for this elitist representation is multifaceted, but at a fundamental level can be attributed to two overriding factors.

First, the initial data and literature on eating disorders, particularly that of anorexia nervosa, were grounded in studies conducted with White European and American females (Mintz & Kashubeck, 1999; Powell & Kahn, 1995; Silber, 1986; Striegel-Moore & Smolak, 1996). A second element contributing to the overrepresentation of Whites in body image analyses is the fact that both early and present day studies were conducted primarily in clinical settings (Gard & Freeman, 1996; Harris, 1995; Robinson & Andersen, 1985). This provides a bias on both race and class levels, as only the wealthiest patients can afford clinically based treatment. Yet even when African American eating disordered patients do have access to health care, they often go mistreated and misdiagnosed simply because physicians fail to recognize that differing racial groups can contract what is perceived to be a White women's illness (Osvold & Sodowsky, 1993; Root, 1990; Thompson, 1992). …