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Historically, the ideal body for an attractive woman in America has changed somewhat throughout the twentieth century. In the 1920s, thin, flat-chested woman with boyish figures were considered beautiful. The ideal changed through the years, and by the fifties, heavier, more curvaceous women, represented most notably bt sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, became society’s ideal. In the 1970s, Twiggy, the ultra-thin supermodel, epitomized a beautiful woman. Today’s supermodels, who are thought to be the embodiment of female beauty, have a tendency to be thin with few curves. Female models have traditionally been closely allied with what the average woman should aspire to look like and what the average man desires in a woman. But, these women have historically represented the Caucasian perspective. With the acknowledgement of and demand for equal rights for African Americans in the United States, businesses began to recognize them as a profitable market that could be targeted.
It was initially believed that African American women simply adopted the standards of Caucasian beauty, but research has proved otherwise. One study (Parker, 2002) found that when asked to describe the “perfect” girl, African American women described someone who interacted will with others, basing little on physical assets, while Caucasian women described primarily physical traits, with the image a 5’ 7’’ thin woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes emerging most frequently. Of these same women, 90 % of Caucasians were dissatisfied with their current body, while 30% of African Americans were dissatisfied. Much research has been done on the relationship between self-esteem and body image and how it differs between Caucasian and African American women. Studies have found that African American women tend to be more satisfied with their bodies than Caucasians (Herzberger & Molloy, 1998). The Body Self-Esteem Survey and the Personal and Academic Self-Concept Inventory, PASCI, (Fleming and Whalen, 1990, adapted from Fleming and Courtney, 1984) were used to assess the self-esteem of each participant. African American women scored higher than Caucasians on the PASCI, and also higher on the Body Self-Esteem Survey, indicating less of a tendency to diet and also a higher desired body weight. When asked to select bodies that men would find most attractive, overall, women had distorted views of the ideal body, but African American women had more accurate views, and Caucasian women had more distorted views (Demerest & Allen, 2000). Caucasian women reported significantly lower body satisfaction and more cases of disordered eating than African American women (Henriquies, Calhoun & Cann, 1996).
While past research has extensively looked at the relationship between African American and Caucasian women and the body images they have for themselves, little research has been done to discover how the ethnic groups view each other. There was a study done that looked at dating patterns of African American and Caucasian men, and it found that African American men were more likely than Caucasian men to date an overweight woman (Bissell, 2002). Whether stereotypes openly exist for female body types of either race is a topic to be explored. This study hoped to examine whether or not participants hold stereotyped ideals for the body images of African American and Caucasian females. We attempted to assess the subconscious attitudes of participants toward the ideal female bodies for African American and Caucasian women. We hypothesized that if participants were shown pictures of varying body sizes, then they would rate African American women as more satisfied with their larger frames than Caucasian women of the same size. Our independent variable was the ethnicities of the figures presented, while our dependent variable was satisfaction ratings of the figures by the participants. This study hoped to add new information to the literature on ethnicity and body ideals by looking at whether or not people hold stereotypical body ideals for African American and Caucasian women.
Forty-one female and twenty-seven male college students ages 18-22 at Loyola University New Orleans were selected for the study through convenience sampling. Students were recruited via the Psychology Department’s Human Participant Pool, through on-campus organizations, and through classes with the researchers. All participants took part in the study on a voluntary basis, and those who were selected through the Human Participant Pool received extra credit from their teachers for participating.
The study used two informed consent forms, one for the participants to have and another for the researchers to keep. The consent form contained contact information that participants could use if they had concerns about anything related to the study after it was completed, as well as the web address where the results would be available. The demographic survey was administered on white paper and filled out with pens. Questions assessing factors such as ethnicity, sex, and age were asked. Participants were randomly shown slides adapted from the Stunkard Body Image Scale (Stunkard, Sorensen, & Schulsinger, 1983). A slide projector was used to project the individual images onto a pull-down screen. Slides were of women of varying sizes standing in bathing suits and were colored brown and peach to represent African American and Caucasian women respectively. Nine figures from very thin to very heavy were colored brown, and the same nine figures were colored peach. A five-point likert scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” in response to the statement “I think this woman is satisfied with her body” was used. The ratings were recorded with pens on a scale provided by the researchers. The demographic survey, samples of the figures used in the slides, and the likert scale are included in the appendices of this paper.
Design and Procedure
This study is quasi-experimental because there was no control group, and the researchers had no control over subject variables. The independent variable was the ethnicity of the women in the slides. Researchers changed the ethnicity of the images participants were shown and assessed their responses to the changes. Slides adapted from the Stunkard Body Image Scale (Stunkard, Sorensen & Schulsinger, 1983) were either depicted as brown-skinned to represent African Americans or peach-skinned to represent Caucasians. The dependent variable was the rating for the statement “I think this woman is satisfied with her body” on a five-point likert scale for each of the 18 slides. Answers to these questions were compared based on the weight and coloring of the images; i.e. African American and Caucasian women of the same weight were compared to see if participants gave varying answers.
After receiving signed informed consent forms from all participants, the researchers then asked each participant to fill out a demographic survey, obtaining basic information such as sex, age, and ethnic group. The demographic survey was coded with a number that was used throughout the study to anonymously keep track of individual participants’ answers. Participants were asked to raise their hands after completing the survey, at which time a researcher collected the papers from each individual. When all demographic surveys had been collected, participants were given the sheet for the next portion of the study, which contained a likert scale. The sheets were coded with the number labeled on the demographic survey. The researchers showed pictures of various body shapes for females in random order one-by-one on a slide projector. The pictures were drawings of women in bathing suits, and each picture differed only by the coloring of the skin and the body size and shape. As each slide was shown, participants recorded their ratings for each picture on the five-point likert scale to the statement “I think this woman is satisfied with her body.” The scale used ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” After participants viewed and rated each of the 18 slides, the answer sheets were collected, and researchers debriefed the participants. The nature of the study as a stereotypical look at ideal body images of African American and Caucasian women was revealed to participants. All questions and concerns participants had were addressed by the researchers to the best of their ability
It was hypothesized that participants would rate African American women as more satisfied with their larger frames than Caucasian women of the same size. The African American and Caucasian figures of each of the nine body sizes were matched so that paired samples statistics could be used to determine the differences in the variable investigated in the study. The main variable examined was the participants’ perceived view of the body satisfaction level each figure had for herself, which was assessed through ratings of slides shown to the participants. T-tests were used on each paired sample to determine where a significant difference between the mean satisfaction ratings for the two ethnicities existed.
The pairs were ordered from one to nine, one being the thinnest figures and nine being the largest (See Figure 1). Five pairs of figures had significant differences between the mean body satisfaction ratings for the two ethnicities: Pairs 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8. The mean body satisfaction ratings and standard deviations for each pair are listed below in Table 1. For the first significant couple, Pair 3, the African American woman was rated as more satisfied (M = 2.63, SD = .951) than the Caucasian woman (M = 3.15, SD = 1.222). The fourth and fifth pairs yield results opposite from each other. For Pair 4, the African American woman was rated as more dissatisfied with her body (M = 3.03, SD = .863) than the Caucasian woman (M = 2.82, SD = .863). Pair 5 concluded that the Caucasian woman was more dissatisfied with her body (M = 3.35, SD = .842) than the African American woman (M = 2.79, SD = .890). For Pair 7, the African American was rated as more dissatisfied (M = 4.38, SD = .811) than the Caucasian (M = 4.10, SD = .794). The final significant pair was 8, and the Caucasian woman was rated as more dissatisfied (M = 4.47, SD = .801) than the African American woman (M = 4.47, SD = .722).
Stunkard Body Image Scale
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Mean and Standard Deviations for Body Satisfaction Ratings
African American Caucasian
Pair Mean SD Mean SD t df Sig (2-tailed)
1 3.84 1.031 4.01 1.113 1.841 67 .621**
2 3.28 1.063 3.90 1.024 -4.254 67 1.000**
3 2.63 .951 3.15 1.222 -3.647 66 .005**
4 3.03 .863 2.82 .863 1.524 67 .002**
5 2.79 .890 3.35 .842 5.097 67 .000**
6 3.54 .745 3.85 .609 3.278 66 .132**
7 4.38 .811 4.10 .794 2.921 67 .001**
8 4.47 .722 4.47 .801 .000 67 .000**
9 4.57 .684 4.54 .686 -.497 64 .070**
**p < .01
Past studies have indicated that Caucasian women reported significantly lower body satisfaction and more cases of disordered eating than African American women (Henriquies, Calhoun & Cann, 1996). Another study found African American women to be more satisfied than Caucasian women with their bodies, regardless of size (Herzberger & Molloy, 1998). The findings are congruent to the latter, indicating that participants rated large African American women as more satisfied with their bodies than Caucasian women of the same size. Additionally, though it was not hypothesized, interestingly enough, the thinner African American women were rated as significantly more satisfied with their bodies than the Caucasians. This indicates the perception that African Americans are more content with their bodies than Caucasians, no matter the size.
A major limitation of this study was that the sample size was very small, reducing the power of the study. Sixty-nine participants took part in the study, but one set of data had to be thrown out because the participant felt it was impossible to rate the pictures. The participants in this study were also undergraduates at a predominately Caucasian Jesuit university, and this may have had an effect on the way they view ideal body images. There number of non-Caucasian participants was low, and the variable of ethnicity could not be examined because of a small representation of ethnic minorities. The presence of the researchers could have also affected the ratings of participants. In some cases all three researchers (one African American female, one Caucasian female, and one Eurasian male) were present. In other cases, one or two researchers were in attendance. Participants may have been unknowingly influenced by these variables, especially depending on who was running the study and whether the researcher was standing close to the screen when the figures were shown. Because this research was conducted on a small campus and used convenience sampling, many times the researchers had friends and acquaintances who participated. This could have affected the results because the research may not have been taken as seriously as it should have been by the participants or the researchers. Additionally, some participants’ ratings may have been affected simply because they knew the researchers and were aware of the general topic of the research.
Another limitation of the study was that the slides used were not distinguishable as African American and Caucasian figures. The African American figures looked tan instead of brown, and the Caucasian figures looked white instead of peach. This discrepancy was due to a difference in shades when the pictures were made into slides to be used with a slide projector. Some participants remarked that they could not tell the difference between the two colors, and therefore the variable may not have had the effect researchers had hoped. Additionally, there may have been order effects of the slides, since they were shown in the same order during every session of the study. Ratings of certain figures could have been influenced by the figure that came before it. To prevent this, the slides need to be shown in a counterbalanced order.
The implications of this study include a greater awareness for individuals of body ideal stereotypes. Individuals who are aware they possess stereotypes are in a better position to compensate for them. In addition, this study adds to the body of research on stereotypes and body image. Suggestions for future research include obtaining a larger sample size, especially one that has a higher percentage of ethnic minorities. The larger sample size will enable the study to have more power, and it will be better able to be generalized to the public. Also, representing ethnic minorities will enable future researchers to examine the variable of race on the body satisfaction ratings to see if differences exist for this variable. Future studies should also to strive to have better quality slides or pictures that have colors that are more distinct so that participants are able to see them. Another suggestion for future research would be to turn the limitation for this study of the researchers from different ethnic backgrounds into a variable to be studied. By regulating the ethnicity and size of the researcher running the study, that effect can be used to see if participants are subconsciously affected. Future studies should also concentrate on counterbalancing the order in which the slides are presented to limit order effects on ratings. For example, the reason the African American woman in Pair 7 was rated as more dissatisfied could be attributed to the fact that she came after the thinnest Caucasian, while the Pair 7 Caucasian followed the second heaviest African American woman.
In conclusion, this study hoped to build on past research concerning body image and ethnicity. Past studies have indicated that African American women are more satisfied with their bodies, on average, than Caucasian women. The present study attempted to build on that to see if there were stereotypical ideals for the body ideals of these two ethnic groups. When further research is completed in this area, it can be determined whether people do hold significantly different views for what an ideal African American and an ideal Caucasian should look like.
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Estes, J. (1990). Never satisfied: A cultural history of diets, fantasies, and fat. Journal of
American Culture, 13, 94-99.
Henriques, G.R., Calhoun, L.G. & Cann, A. (1996). Ethnic differences in women’s body
satisfaction: An experimental investigation. The Journal of Social Psychology, 136, 689-697.
Herzberger, S. D. & Molloy, B. L. (1998). Body image and self-esteem: A comparison of
African American and Caucasian women. Sex Roles, 38, 631-643.
Parker, S. (2002). Is it true that African American and Caucasian girls have different ideas of
body type and beauty? Retrieved October 27, 2002 from University of Arizona, Health Source Center Web site: http://www.ahsc.arizona.edu/opa/answers/9news95.htm.
Stunkard, A. J., Sorenson, T. & Schulsinger, F. (1983). The Genetics of Neurological and
Psychiatric Disorders, 115-120.
Instructions: Please answer the following questions to the best of your ability. Raise your hand when finished, and a researcher will collect your sheet.
Age ________ Nationality __________________________
Race (check all that apply)
q African American
q Asian American
q Other __________________________________
Current Class Standing
q Sophomore Major(s) __________________________
q Other ___________________________________
The Stunkard Body Image Scale
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