An Examination of Multiple Aspects of Body Image in Racially/ethnically Diverse Emerging Adults

By Gillen, Meghan M. | North American Journal of Psychology, March 2013 | Go to article overview

An Examination of Multiple Aspects of Body Image in Racially/ethnically Diverse Emerging Adults


Gillen, Meghan M., North American Journal of Psychology


Emerging adulthood is a period of exploration in various areas of life (Arnett, 2000), including body-related attitudes and behaviors (Gillen & Lefkowitz, 2012). New experiences during emerging adulthood, such as more serious romantic relationships and increased freedom regarding health and social decisions may shape how individuals think and feel about their bodies (Arnett, 2000; Gillen & Lefkowitz, 2012). Body image may be particularly relevant for emerging adults who are in college. For example, after participating in college programs that encourage positive body image, or playing on particular sports teams where body weight is important for performance (e.g., men's wrestling teams), students may change their attitudes toward their bodies (e.g., McVey et al., 2010; Milligan & Pritchard, 2006). Thus, emerging adulthood is a time period where body image may be particularly dynamic and salient, and therefore important to examine.

The current study examines gender and racial/ethnic differences in body image among African American/Black, Asian American/Asian, and European American/White college students. Group differences were tested on three aspects of body image--appearance orientation, appearance evaluation, and body satisfaction. These aspects of body image are important to study because of their link to negative health outcomes, such as disordered eating symptoms, cigarette smoking, and risky sexual behavior (Clark et al., 2005; Gillen, Lefkowitz, & Shearer, 2006; Petrie, Greenleaf, Reel, & Carter, 2009). Appearance orientation and appearance evaluation were assessed using standardized measures, whereas body satisfaction was measured using an open-ended question.

Appearance Orientation and Appearance Evaluation

Previous research shows gender differences in appearance orientation, a construct that represents cognitive and behavioral investment in appearance (Cash, 2000). Specifically, women tend to be more oriented toward their appearance than men (Gillen & Lefkowitz, 2006; Latner, Knight, & Illingworth, 2011; Miller et al., 2000), which may be related to the cultural emphasis on women's appearance and the social rewards bestowed upon attractive women (Murnen, 2011). Racial/ethnic differences in appearance orientation are less clear. One study showed no racial/ethnic differences between African Americans and European Americans (Miller et al., 2000). Another study revealed that European American women were more oriented toward their appearance than their male peers, but there was no gender difference among African Americans (Gillen & Lefkowitz, 2006). In research that includes Asian, Pacific Islander, and White individuals, studies reveal no racial/ethnic differences in appearance orientation or concern with weight (Koff, Benavage, & Wong, 2001; Latner et al., 2011; Mintz & Kashubeck, 1999).

Appearance evaluation, a construct that represents overall evaluation of attractiveness or unattractiveness, is another body image measure that tends to show gender differences (Cash, 2000). Men typically report more positive evaluations than women (Gillen & Lefkowitz, 2006; Miller et al., 2000). The greater cultural emphasis on appearance for women, as evident in unattainable cultural ideals of thinness and sex appeal seen in the media, may account for their less positive evaluations of their looks (Murnen, 2011). Further, African Americans tend to evaluate their appearance more positively than European Americans (Gillen & Lefkowitz, 2006; Miller et al., 2000), which may be because of their greater acceptance of larger body sizes and, among women, more flexible definitions of attractiveness (Aruguete, Nickleberry, & Yates, 2004; Franko & Roehrig, 2011; Parker et al., 1995). In studies comparing European American/White to Asian American/Asian individuals, results are mixed. Some evidence indicates that European American/White individuals have more positive evaluations of appearance than Asian American/Asian individuals (Frederick, Forbes, Grigorian, & Jarcho, 2007), yet other work shows no racial/ethnic differences between these groups (Koff et al. …

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