Body Image in Ethnic Communities

Of course you can change your body!

What is it like to grow up in a society where the standard of beauty isn’t the way you look?

We live in a culture where social media sets an unrealistic standard for 99% of men and woman. Where the majority of images we see we can never, ever, attain.

Would you walk into the doctor’s office and ask them to change your height? No. But we are told, and often believe, that we can fundamentally change our bodies. Through diet, surgery and the latest beauty treatment.

Only 1% of the world’s population is Caucasian, tall and thin and those are the Scandinavians…

Where does this leave the rest of us?

This belief that we can change – somehow – often leads to negative body image and poor self-esteem, both of which are known to lead to underachievement, disordered eating and eating disorders.

Plus – a lifetime of dieting.

Negative body image does not discriminate

“Body dissatisfaction is a strong predictor of depression and eating disorders…this really highlights that (ethnic-minority) women are not exempt from those concerns.”

Shelly Grabe, PhD

Is it surprising that studies confirm that women from diverse cultural backgrounds are more insecure with their body image?

Living in, and wanting to fit into a western style culture can mean that one’s natural traits are considered ‘undesirable’. One example of this is in a society where ‘plumpness’ was traditionally desirable – but no more.  

Until we incorporate a range of ethnicities and skin tones into our common idea of how it’s possible to be beautiful, body image will never be an even playing field.

Natasha Devon, MBE, Body Image & Mental Health Campaigner.

We appear to live in a society where our worth is reflected in our body size, where thinness is synonymous with beauty and success.

Is this new? No.

Negative body image has been around for a long time…

Are you surprised to learn that the founder of Weight Watchers in 1963 was Jewish?

That the inventor of the Barbie doll in 1959 was a Jewish woman who named the doll after her daughter Barbara?

Reflecting their times (and what’s changed?) both women expected us to want to strive for the thin ideal, and accepted the western beauty ideal of blond hair and blue eyes.

It’s only in the last decade that ‘Barbie’ – in response to falling sales – can be purchased to reflect some diversity of colour and body size.

Fact: – The most popular Barbie’s are still the thin ones.

Is life easier when you’re thin?

Weight discrimination starts young, where higher weight students are bullied and left out of social invitations. From a BAME background? This is on top of discrimination you may encounter because of your background.

Today thinness has also become linked with belonging to an upper social class. If you’re from another group and want to be socially mobile you need to look the part…

In addition, the rise in numbers of people affected by obesity together with the constant stream of headlines and health warnings has led to an increase in weight stigma, weight bias and blame culture.

Is it any surprise that the pressure is on us to be a certain size? And even more so for someone from a diverse background?

Diets for daughters…encouraged by fathers

So what happens if you’re a parent with a daughter and your genetic inheritance definitely isn’t Scandinavian?

The first diet.

Diets start for daughters when they hit puberty, or before.

Surveys show that parents and families add to the pressure. Alarmingly, they found that it is usually the fathers from ethnic communities who are most critical.  

So the cycle of dieting, negative body image and low self-esteem begins as well in communities with strong cultural traditions and beliefs.  

“Eat, eat” followed by “diet, diet”

Food can play a central role in daily life when you come from a more traditional background. Family meals, community celebrations and religious ceremonies focus on food.

For too many it has become ‘eat, eat’ followed by ‘diet diet’. We are urged to be slim but surrounded by food – in and out of the kitchen.  

Trying to maintain a healthy body weight, let alone attain a ‘thin ideal’ is hard for many of us, surrounded as we are by food. My post,

If we find it that hard, then consider the challenges facing those from communities where the making of food is non-negotiable, where religious festivals demand special meals and dietary laws demand focus on food.

Traditions can help encourage a positive body image

However… religious groups have traditions which can help strengthen a woman’s body image. A strong and deep relationship with your religion can act as a preventative against poor body image – you are sustained by your beliefs.

For example, the Jewish code of behaviour called Halacha tells us that a woman’s value is within herself, and her moral value rather than her physical value is what matters.

Of course, this can lead to conflict when your level of observance or lifestyle conflicts with these values. It can leave you especially vulnerable.

We know this because studies show that it is within this less traditional group that we find those who are more likely to equate body size with self-esteem.

We know how that goes – not very well.

Finally, we can all make a difference – by encouraging self-esteem, and positive body image in our families together with a dose of healthy support from spiritual communities.

Sources include:

  1. (Natasha Devon)
  2. Body dissatisfaction affects ethnic-minority and white women alike. American Psychological Association, September 2006, Vol 37, No. 8 (Sally Grabe, PhD).
  3. “Culture matters in the obesity debate”, Professor Kelly D. Brownell, Director of the Yale Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity. LA Times, 2017
  4. Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness, Margo Maine
  5. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture, Amy Erdman Farrell

A kind of disclaimer – to quote Natasha Devon:

Body image and race are inextricably linked and yet if I say anything which recognizes the same I’m met with looks which veer between ‘I can’t believe you said that’ and ‘proceed with caution’.

Memberships Memberships Memberships Memberships Memberships