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Alan Roberts
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Last modified: Monday, December 18, 2006

Body image and ethnicity: more complicated than once thought

Dec. 18, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new study finds that the difference between black and white American women in body weight dissatisfaction is less than once thought, while the gap in how satisfied they are with aspects of appearance that are unrelated to weight is growing, with African American women -- again -- being more satisfied with their appearance.

The findings, reported in the December issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, contradict conventional wisdom and have clinical applications, said lead author Alan Roberts, a lecturer of psychology in Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

"There has been a widespread belief among clinicians that black women simply don't develop eating disorders, and they have proceeded clinically along this line, dismissing the possibility for black women," said Roberts, whose research interests include eating disorders, body satisfaction and standards of beauty. "The findings from this study suggest it may no longer be acceptable to make assumptions on body dissatisfaction based on ethnicity. In terms of the study's weight measures, which are most closely linked to eating disorders, the difference is diminishing."

Roberts conducted a meta-analysis that included data from 55 body image studies conducted between 1966 and 2002, with most of the studies occurring from the late 1980s on. Coauthors include Thomas F. Cash, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University; Alan Feingold, research associate at the Oregon Social Learning Center; and Blair T. Johnson, division head of social psychology at the University of Connecticut.

The occurrence of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction peaks in the high school and early college years for women. Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia can lead to a variety of serious health conditions and even death.

Roberts said he was most surprised by the finding concerning satisfaction with measures of appearance that were unrelated to weight. Black women showed more positive attitudes concerning non-weight aspects of their appearance, and more importantly, this difference is increasing unlike the difference involving weight.

The study could not describe the patterns by which the gaps changed.

Concerning the weight-related measure, previous research by coauthor Cash has found that white women are becoming more satisfied with their weight. In the current research article, the authors argue it also might be that black women are becoming less satisfied with their bodies. If true, more intensified efforts to detect and treat body image disturbance in black women is warranted. Roberts said it also might be the case that white women are adopting healthier attitudes toward their bodies. Although encouraging at one level, this could be troublesome if it leads to obesity and a host of other weight-related problems.

Roberts can be reached at 812-855-9782 and

"Are Black-White differences in females' body dissatisfaction decreasing? A meta-analytic review." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 1121-1131 (December 2006).