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Cultural Attitudes And Body Dissatisfaction

Cultural Attitudes And Body Dissatisfaction

Morgan State researchers find that perceptions of body image among young African Americans may be life threatening

Young African Americans don’t appear to perceive obesity in the way the medical community does, putting them at greater risk for developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer, says a first-ever study led by researchers at the Morgan State University Prevention Sciences Research Center.

The pilot study, which provides a rare look at the way African-American young adults perceive  body size, body image and the impact of weight on their social lives and future health, comes at a time when obesity is near epidemic levels in the Black community and African-American youth are experiencing some of the highest rates.

Only 39 percent of males surveyed who were overweight actually considered themselves to be overweight compared with 68 percent of overweight females. And not all of the overweight men were dissatisfied with their weight or size, says lead researcher Dr. Susan M. Gross, a faculty fellow at the Morgan State prevention center.

In fact, most of the overweight men studied wanted to be larger in size in their upper torso. When males, for example, were asked to describe their current weight, what they desired to look like and what their healthy weight was, their desired weight and their healthy weight still put them in an overweight category.

“Males say, ‘I want to be muscular and bigger,’ but they aren’t thinking of how being bigger impacts their weight for their height, they just want be a big guy to feel attractive,” Gross says. “For the women, a curvaceous figure is what they’re going after … an hourglass figure. If they have one, they don’t want to lose it.”

Researchers suggest that racial differences in body dissatisfaction could be a cultural thing. For example, African Americans surveyed had more tolerant attitudes about weight gain and body image and felt less social pressure about weight. 

The respondents, graduating seniors from a historically Black university in the Mid-Atlantic region, completed a self-administered paper-and-pencil survey as they waited in line to receive their graduation regalia. While the entire 2003 graduating class (855 students) from this institution was eligible to participate in the study, the final sample size was comprised of 318 students of which 104 (33 percent) were males and 214 (67 percent) were females. The study was conducted as part of a College Health and Wellness survey and supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“What I found unusual was the extent to which male students were not dissatisfied with their weight,” Gross says. “Males that had body weights that put them between 25 and 29 BMI” did not perceive themselves to be overweight and they wanted to be bigger.

“To me that’s a problem. That’s not something that I expected to find at all,” Gross says, who also presented the findings at the the American Public Health Association conference in Washington, D.C., in November.

BMI or body mass index is a number calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of height in meters. People with BMI readings of 19 are considered to be of normal weight, with 25 the threshold for being considered overweight and 30 approaching the obese category. The reasons for maintaining a low to normal BMI are not only compelling but potentially life saving, Gross says. For example, the mortality risk goes up exponentially for a person with a body mass index of 25 and the risk for death from a heart attack is 40 percent higher in a person with a body mass index of 30 or higher.

For both male and female HBCU students surveyed, perceptions about weight-related health and disease risks were formed during childhood. Men who were overweight as children and had fathers who were obese or overweight associated these factors with perceived health risks, the study revealed. For female students, however, being overweight as a child more greatly influenced how they perceived future weight-related health risks.

Gross says she found inaccurate perceptions about body weight among young African Americans alarming,

“The findings tell me that we are definitely not getting the message to them about what their weight should be. There is something else going on,” Gross contends. “The desired body image is not related to health; it’s related to a look. I felt that was really compelling, and I felt that such findings have implications because using terms such as overweight, obesity and healthy weight, don’t seem to be compelling this group to think about their weight in relation to the body shape and size that they want,” Gross says.

While young African Americans appear to be more concerned about how they look than about achieving healthy weight and warding off future disease, Gross says the window of opportunity to prevent illness and to change health behaviors in this population may be closing.

“If we are going to reach this group to promote a healthy image, we are not going to be able to use traditional methods,” Gross says. 

 — B.D.H.

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