"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Body Image

This is a fascinating article about why black women feel better about their bodies than white women (http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/black-women-heavier-and-happier-with-their-bodies-than-white-women-poll-finds/2012/02/22/gIQAPmcHeR_story_2.html).  The article is interesting not only because of its specific socio-cultural focus on the black community, but because it illustrates how normative behavior is so important, and how behavioral change is so difficult. 

The poll found that although black women are heavier than their white counterparts, they report having appreciably higher levels of self-esteem. Although 41 percent of average-sized or thin white women report having high self-esteem, that figure was 66 percent among black women considered by government standards to be overweight or obese.

The most telling reason for this phenomenon, according to the author,  is the following:

In 2008, Heather Hausenblas, a University of Florida professor of exercise physiology, co-wrote a study looking at the role the media played in body image among white and black women. Both groups were exposed to the ideal tall, thin white woman’s physique, and their moods were compared before and after. White women felt badly about themselves after viewing the idealized physique; black women were unaffected. Black women “are just not comparing themselves to these white models,” Hausenblas says. Caucasian women are internalizing the images; black women are not.

Self-image is a complex phenomenon with social, cultural, physical, psychological, and historical roots. There appear to be three factors which are operating: 1) the class-income-education phenomenon where people in poor communities have higher BMIs ; and 2) the psycho-social phenomenon of conformity to the group.  Recent studies have shown that people tend towards the norm, even when it comes to weight. Bernheim and others have documented this fact.  That is, you tend towards the weight norm of the socio-economic and cultural milieu in which you live; and 3) the thesis of the author of the article – that the norms of the majority community (in this case white women) are rejected by the black minority. 

Regarding the first factor, low-income communities in the United States tend to be heavier and more obese because of: a) low income which prohibits them from purchasing higher-cost healthy foods; b) living in poor neighborhoods which are often underserved by upscale food chains such as Whole Foods which focus on organic and other ‘healthy’ options; c) low levels of education which limit an understanding of food and nutrition and the ability to negotiate claims, counterclaims, and nutritional data.

[The author of the study] attributes the higher BMI among African American women to work demands, which he says lead to fast-food lifestyles, less exercise and fewer healthful eating options in majority-black places such as Prince George’s County.

Income has always been a predominant factor in weight and image. A full-figured woman in the days of Rubens – a far cry from the svelte woman of today – was the norm, and has been during various periods of history.  Weight in poor societies (whether in 17th Century Holland or in Africa or Asia) was a sign of wealth and prosperity and therefore beauty.  Thinness today is also a sign of wealth, for trim women and men show that they have the money to afford imported fish and health spas. In low-income communities where weight gain is inevitable, given the factors indicated above, a full-bodied and –proportioned body has become the ideal.

Regarding the second factor, overweight people who live in an overweight community perceive obesity as the acceptable social norm even though they may be receiving information from the majority – commercial images, government-sponsored nutritional and health information, etc.

Middle class black communities, however, tend towards the majority (white) norms.  In Washington, for example, the many black lawyers, lobbyists, media personalities, and business executives conform to the white weight norm, and the article suggests that more black women, regardless of income or social class are beginning to look to slimmer black celebrity role models.  On the whole, however, the images of black beauty are likely to be slow to change:

[Black women] grew up listening to songs like the Commodores’s “Brick House” and hearing relatives extol the virtues of “big legs” and women with meat on their bones.

Essence and Ebony magazines offered their own visions of black beauty. The Ebony Fashion Fair took black glamour on the road. “There was no Anna Wintour saying yes or no. The aisles at church were a runway, ‘Soul Train’ was a runway, the first day of school was a runway,” Davis says. “Jet magazine began offering its beauty of the week — aspiring dental hygienists, complete with measurements — and skinny women need not apply.”

Every generation had celebratory songs blasting from the radio. “I have a very clear image of hearing the Commodores playing ‘Brick House,’ and all my cool aunties in high-waist jumpsuits got up to dance. It was an anthem for them to shine.” In the lexicon, women weren’t fat, they were “thick,” “healthy,” “big-boned.” They had “nice futures” behind them.

It is the third factor – the influence of media - which is the most complex.  Assuming that black women do in fact ignore the commercial image of svelte white women as irrelevant to their own body image, why is this true? There appear to be a number of principal factors: 1) the poor black community is still isolated from white society; and therefore individuals within it feel that white norms are irrelevant and/or unattainable; and 2) there is a more deliberate rejection of white norms regarding weight just as there has been a rejection of good black students who ‘act white’; and 3) members of this community feel that the socio-economic factors which have produced obesity are inescapable and inevitable, and that a potent psycho-social accommodation has taken place. 

Given the current focus on obesity, there are many articles, transcripts, and professional journal articles on the subject, many of which focus on black female obesity, most of which address the issues I have brought up here as well as many more.  Some are from the popular media:

1) NPR summary of radio program: “Obesity in America is a problem across the racial spectrum. But columnist Debra Dickerson suggests that African-American women are more inclined to be overweight because African-American men prefer them to be so. Dickerson defends her argument and is joined by a blogger who disagrees in this week's Behind Closed Doors.”

2) BET Online: Why Do Black Women Have the Highest Rates of Obesity in the U.S.? Kellee Terrell: "Some experts believe that poverty and lack of access to healthy foods are not the only factors in why African-American women are disproportionately large.

Others are scholarly: Explaining the Female Black-White Obesity Gap – A Decomposition Analysis of Proximal Causes, Johnston and Lee, Journal of Social Sciences.



The three factors mentioned above are suggestions based on some of this research, but a more detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this article.  

In summary, this article and the studies and surveys on which it is based, offer an insightful look into behavior and behavior change, and in particular the relationship between weight and body image.  Obesity is undeniably linked to health problems, yet changing behavior to reduce weight is a complex issue of which calorie in – calorie out is but one issue. Self-image is a potent and resistant factor in this equation.

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