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Racial Differences in Eating Disorders and Body Attitudes

The author reviews the most recent literature on the differences between white and black females in regard to eating disorders, dieting, and physical self-confidence. The racial differences and similarities from a questionnaire given to almost 400 female undergraduates are then discussed in terms of: their eating disorders, satisfaction with weight, dieting, pressure to lose weight, and receiving therapy treatment for anorexia. The connections between these women's behaviors, their parents, marital status, and the quality of their relationships with parents, roommates and boyfriends are also discussed.

When it comes to eating disorders and attitudes about their weight, black females in the United States are in many ways more fortunate than white females. In part this is because black males and females have less restrictive, less narrow definitions of what makes a woman beautiful - especially when it comes to how much a woman weighs. That is, black Americans are more likely than white Americans to appreciate the beauty of a woman's naturally full body. Unlike most whites, most blacks do not consider extremely skinny, underweight women to be more beautiful and more desirable than women who are of average or slightly above average weight. Consequently, most black females are less obsessed than most white females are about how much they weigh and about dieting. Knowing that most black males do not find excessively thin or anorexic looking women attractive, black women are usually more satisfied and more self-confident than white women when it comes to their weight. This isn't to say that black women and girls do not care how they look or that they do not judge and get judged on the basis of appearance. Regardless of race, people who are considered attractive generally have more self-confidence, are more popular socially, and receive better treatment at school and at work in terms of such things as being given a teacher's or supervisor's help, being promoted faster, or being given the benefit of the doubt in grading or evaluations (Bordo. 1993; Friday. 1996; Halprin. 1995; Wolf. 1992). Still, black females are judged less often than whites on the basis of how much they weigh and more often on the basis of factors such as skin shade, the "right" kind of nose or lips, and "good" hair (Abrams, Allen, & Gray. 1993; Akan & Greilo. 1995; Allan, Mayo, & Michel. 1993; Boyd. 1995; Dacosta & Wilson. 1999; Erdman. 1995; Greenberg & Laporte. 1996; Grogan. 1999; Halprin. 1995; Harris. 1994; Heywood. 1996; Kumanyika, Wilson, & Guilford. 1993; LeGrange, Telch, & Agras. 1997; Maine. 1993; Molloy & Herzberger. 1998; Parker & and others. 1995; Powell & Kahn. 1995; Randolph. 1996; Root. 1990; Rosen & others. 1991; Rucker & Cash. 1992; Silverstein & Perlick. 1995; Thone. 1998; Villarosa. 1995; Wade. 1991; Walsh & Devlin. 1998; Wilfley & others. 1996; Wolf. 1992).

When it comes to eating disorders and attitudes about their weight, black females in the United States are in many ways more fortunate than white females. Read why.Sadly though, a growing number of black females seem to be adopting many whites' unhealthy attitudes about being too thin, are becoming more dissatisfied with their bodies, and are developing more eating disorders. What seems to be happening is that the more a black female identifies with or interacts with white upper class culture, the more likely she is to adopt whites' attitudes about being extremely thin and dieting excessively. As a result, these black females may end up as dissatisfied with their weight and as obsessed with dieting and being thin as their white counterparts. Worse yet, more black females may be becoming anorexic. For example, among many upwardly mobile black Americans, a woman with a heavy body and large hips is considered more "lower class" looking than a skinny woman (Edut & Walker. 1998). And lower income black women may also becoming more concerned with losing weight and looking thinner (Moore & others. 1995; Wilfley & others. 1996) But as one black college graduate pointed out, she only began dieting and obsessing about thinness after she transferred from a predominantly black, urban high school to a private school in a rich, white suburb (Mahmoodzedegan. 1996). It's worth noting too that white standards of beauty increasingly became focused on a woman's thinness only after white women were granted the right to vote, started working outside the home in large numbers, and became equal to white men in terms of college graduation rates - a fact which might indicate that when a woman becomes well educated and enters male dominated professions, she is encouraged to look wafer thin, child-like, and as non-sexual as possible (Silverstein & Perlick. 1995; Wolf. 1992). In any event, the point is that college educated black females might be more likely than less educated black women to develop eating disorders, to diet excessively, and to feel bad about their weight partly because they have more exposure to upper middle class white attitudes and judgments (Abrams, Allen, & Gray. 1993; Akan & Greilo. 1995; Bowen, Tomoyasu, & Cauce. 1991; Cunningham & Roberts. 1995; Dacosta & Wilson. 1999; Edut & Walker. 1998; Grogan. 1999; Harris. 1994; Iancu & others. 1990; LeGrange, Telch, & Agras. 1997; Mahmoodzedegan. 1996; Rosen & others. 1991; Moore & others. 1995; Wilfley & others. 1996).

Still, most of the females who diet excessively and who become anorexic are white. Although anorexia only affects 1%-3% of all women in the United States, as many as 20% of college women might have eating disorders. Moreover, nearly 150,000 women in the U.S. die from anorexia every year (Lask & Waugh. 1999; MacSween. 1996). Although both black and white females usually do the most damage to themselves physically by gaining too much weight which causes such problems as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes, white women are more likely than black women to damage their bones, muscles, teeth, kidneys, heart, mental functions, and reproductive systems by eating far too little. Unlike most black females, most white females have been or still are on a diet. And those well-educated white women from upper middle and wealthy families tend to diet and to become anorexic far more often than less well educated, lower income white women (Bordo. 1993; Epling & Pierce. 1996; Grogan. 1999; Heilbrun. 1997; Hesse-Biber. 1996; Heywood. 1996; Iancu & others. 1990; Lask & Waugh. 1999; MacSween. 1996; Malson. 1998; Orenstein. 1994; Ryan. 1995; Walsh & Devlin. 1998).

Ironically, while more white and more black women than ever are damaging themselves by excessive dieting, being too thin, or becoming anorexic, in many ways our society seems to be becoming more hostile and more prejudiced against overweight people. First we often assume that overweight people are undisciplined, lazy, and unmotivated in all aspects of their lives (Hirschmann & Munter. 1995; Kano. 1995; Thone. 1998). Second, obese people are less likely to be hired, promoted, and given other advantages at work and at school than those who are thin (Bordo. 1993; Friday. 1996; Halprin. 1995; Poulton. 1997; Silverstein & Perlick. 1995; Thone. 1998). Third, no matter what their race, women are socialized to continually try to make themselves look better and to be dissatisfied with some aspect of their appearance. Indeed, industries make billions of dollars by selling services and products to women to improve their appearance - often focusing on weight loss and abnormal thinness. Likewise, most advertisers hire wafer thin female models to promote their products, thus encouraging the belief that: "if you are as skinny as I am, you too can eventually get the good things in life like this beautiful car I'm advertising and this handsome, rich man I'm with in this ad". No matter how thin or how beautiful a woman is, and no matter what her skin color, the advertising industry still continuously bombards her with the message that she must continue spending money in her never ending quest to improve her appearance - above all, the quest to be thin (Bordo. 1993; Cooke. 1996; Davis. 1998; Davis. 1994; Erdman. 1995; Foster. 1994; Friday. 1996; Freedman. 1995; Grogan. 1999; Halprin. 1995; Hirschmann & Munter. 1995; Lambert. 1995; Poulton. 1997; Steams. 1997; Thone. 1998; Wolf. 1992).