IS IT BETTER TO BE BLACK THAN WHITE?

On February 27th the Washington Post published the results of a study showing that although black women were on average heavier than white women, they had significantly higher levels of self-esteem. 41% of average or thin white women reported having high self-esteem. However 66% of overweight or obese (according to government standards) black women reported having high self esteem. The study also reports that 28% of black women think that being physically attractive is “very important” vs 11% of white women. This would seem to indicate that black women don’t believe that being thin is as strongly linked to attractiveness as white women do. The article cites one reason for the study’s findings as being the mainstream media’s traditional exclusion of African-American women from it’s demographic, leaving them less affected by the images of extreme thinness surrounding them. It is true that historically fashion and advertising has been geared mainly towards a white audience. In a February 22 2011 article in the Guardian UK edition titled ‘Fashion probably is a bit racist’,  Premier Modeling Agency founder Carole White is quoted as saying about the fashion industry “It’s driven by what sells, and, in general, white blonde girls sell, that’s the mindset. In actual fact, black girls do sell but they’re not given as many openings. It is safer to go with a white girl, and in a recession people are very conservative.” The media role models that black women tend to look up to and admire are women who embrace their curves, musical icons and voluptuous actresses, and African-American culture encourages a curvy, healthy shape. Therefore black women tend to embrace a larger frame than many white women strive for. The results from the Washington Post survey are consistent with similar earlier studies. A study published November 1992 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders also concluded that blacks had better body image attitudes and had body size ideals that were less thin and more congruent with their own current perceived size. They also had less strict criteria for perceiving body fatness. In another study published March 2010 in the Journal of Black Studies, 2 sets of photos were shown to 31 white and 30 African-American undergraduate students. One set of photos showed slender white female models representing the “media ideal” and the other set showed white female models representing an “average” build. Caucasian models were used as they represented the majority of images in magazines and catalogs. When white women viewed the set of slides showing the “ideal” photos they reported more body dissatisfaction than before viewing them. They felt better about their bodies after seeing the “average” photos. African-American students reported no change in body satisfaction after viewing either set of photos. Because the study didn’t look at how black women felt after looking at unrealistic images of other black women, the study could not conclude that African-American women were immune to all media influences,however they did not seem to have the same body standards for themselves as white women which seemed to be strongly influence by mainstream media.

While this all seems like great news for black women, no race/ethnicity or class of people is immune to eating disorders. In the US an estimated 10 million females are battling eating disorders. In Canada 1.5% of women aged 15-24 have an eating disorder. While there is no clear data on the prevalence of eating disorders among the various races, a study published in the Archives in Family Medicine in 2000 found that black women were just as likely as white women to report recurrent binge eating and vomiting, and were actually more likely to abuse laxatives or diuretics. And there is evidence that the rate of eating disorders in minority women is increasing, according to a 2005 NY Times article entitled ‘Blacks Join the Eating-Disorder Mainstream’. In the article a Dr. Brooks states “We’re noticing a trend of more severe eating disorders among African-American girls”.However data is often skewed as minority women are less likely to seek treatment. Dr. Ruth Striegel-Moore published a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2003 showing young black women were as likely as white women to report binge eating. During her research she also found that compared to 28% of white women, only 5% of black women reported having received treatment. There has also been a push within the last decade for companies to diversify their media campaigns to include a wider range of models more representative of consumer culture. Unfortunately, the models used to epitomize ethnic beauty are nothing like the buxom, curvy, proud women so revered in African-American culture, but instead the same skeletal remains of women that have been walking runways and gracing magazine covers for years, only a different color. So, in effect, the more black women become integrated into the mainstream, the more pressure they may feel to fit a beauty standard that seems to narrow every day.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, the article in the Washington Post alludes to another issue affecting black (and in fact all North American) women today. The article describes how by black women being happier and more accepting of fuller figures, they have put themselves on a “slippery slope toward higher rates of obesity”. According to current statistics, 36.2% of US women and 23.9% of Canadian women are considered obese (BMI 30 or greater). In the US, African-American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese than any group, with 4/5 black women being overweight or obese. Black women have a 60% higher chance of being obese than white women. From 2005-2008 78% of black women and 59.6% of white women were overweight (BMI 25 or greater), with 51 of the black women and 33.1% of the white women being considered obese. Both genetic predisposition and high obesity rates put African-American women at high risk for many serious medical conditions. 13% of African-American’s over 20 have diabetes. There appears to be a genetic link in this population, however with lifestyle interventions, one of them being weight loss, many people can delay of even halt the progression of diabetes. 40% of African-Americans also have hypertension or high blood pressure, and it tends to appear earlier in life and be more severe than in caucasians. High blood pressure increases the risk of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), blindness, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, heart attack and stroke. PAD is a result of fatty deposits that limit blood flow to the limbs and is more common in African-Americans than any other ethnic group. Risk factors are increased blood pressure and diabetes, and PAD can result in limb amputation. Obesity greatly increases the risk of all of these conditions and can significantly shorten a woman’s life.

So clearly there is a dilemma. The study in the Washington Post tells us that though on average heavier, African-American women seem to be more content with their bodies than white women, and this is something to be proud of. On the flip side, statistics show that the majority of African-American women in the United States are overweight or obese, potentially putting their health at serious risk, which is something that needs to change. Adjuvantly, eating disorders are prevalent among North American women, affecting women of all ages and races, and are also life-threatening, with the prevalence in black women increasing. In the Washington Post study 90% of black women thought it was ‘very important’ to live a healthy lifestyle, so clearly these women need to strike a balance. I think that the women who can celebrate themselves no matter what their size and resist the media influences that tell us that all women should fit into one mold should be applauded, and in fact envy these women at times. However I think it is also important not to forget that part of loving and respecting your body is keeping it healthy and working well so you can continue to live and enjoy life and flaunt the body you love. The media would like women to believe that a healthy weight range fluctuates within only about 5 pounds (between skinny and thin) but in reality there is a relatively large range of sizes that are considered healthy. So take note: no need to lose those curves!!

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2 Responses to “IS IT BETTER TO BE BLACK THAN WHITE?”

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