Hispanic versus African American Girls: Body Image, Nutrition, and Puberty

Article excerpt

Public health research has been dominated by the biomedical model, which describes biological mechanisms at the individual level. This model does not appear to be appropriate for studying public health variables across different populations, especially when there are several similarities among them. For example, in the study of Hispanic American (HA) and African American (AA) girls, such similarities are apparent. In the U.S., there are similarities in these two populations on variables such as minority status, educational attainment, unemployment rate, income level, the prevalence of childhood obesity, and type 2 diabetes. According to the U.S. 2005 American Community Survey, both the HA (14%) and AA (12%) populations in the U.S., are represented as minorities. Six percent of HAs have a bachelor's degree compared to 7% of AAs. HAs have a median annual income of $36,820 compared to $34.851 for AAs. Also, the HA unemployment rate of 8.7%, is closer to the 13.2% of the AA than the 5.5% rate of nonhispanic whites. The National health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) in 1999 and 2000 (n=997) also found similarities between the obesity rates of HA and AA children. HA children living in the U.S. had a high prevalence of obesity, with 23.7% of children between 6-11 years being overweight. Monitoring by Hoelscher et al. (2004) of Body Mass Index (BMI) of 4th, 8th, and 11th grade girls in Texas, revealed that HA girls had the highest BMI median (21.76) followed by AA girls (21.56), with the lowest BMI among Whites (21.2). Most of the overweight children also had a higher number of risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes (Drobac, Brickman, Smith, & Binns, 2004). The American Diabetes Association (2005) data indicate that type 2 diabetes, although still rare, is being diagnosed more frequently in children and adolescents, particularly in American Indians, African Americans, and Hispanic Latino Americans. Type 1 diabetes, or juvenile diabetes, is usually diagnosed in children or young adults, but type 2 diabetes, previously known as adult-onset diabetes, is being diagnosed in more and more children and teens. A major factor related to diabetes is being overweight. Saha, Eckert, Pratt, and Shankar (2005) found that AA children overall were more likely to be overweight. As early as age seven, 25% of AA children were overweight.

Despite these similarities, there are significant differences that lead to a public health paradox. As Scribner (1996) argues, the acculturation hypothesis and group-level analyses help explain the paradox of HA health. That is, even though HA tend to be poorer, medically underserved, and less educated, their infant mortality and birth weight rates are equal to those of non-Hispanic Whites, and are half of the rates of AAs. Also, HA with strong cultural ties engage in fewer high-risk behaviors and therefore have favorable health outcomes. Findings related to the health disparities found by pediatric research between AA and HA girls are of paramount significance. Pediatric research concerning secondary sexual characteristics and menses in young girls indicates that among HA (n = 699, ages 10-17 yrs.), the average age of development of breasts and pubic hair was 11.0-11.3 years (Villareal, Martorell, & Mendoza, 1989). On the other hand, 48.3% of AA girls (n = 1,638: ages 3-12 years) are showing secondary sexual characteristics such as breast development, pubic hair growth, and enlargement of hips, at 8 years of age (Herman-Giddens et al., 1997). This phenomenon among AA girls, had emerged fairly recently (over the past 30 years). Earlier research has compared the early puberty phenomenon among AA girls with that of Caucasian Americans. However, such a comparison introduces myriad extraneous demographic factors such as income and education levels. Research have acknowledged that growth data is sensitive to life changes such as catastrophes, prosperity, and cultural changes which affect diet and lifestyle (Herman-Giddens, Kaplowitz, & Wasserman, 2004). …