Cynthia Frisby

(WOMENSENEWS)–Turn on the television or flip through a fashion magazine and you’re likely to face one predominant image: a white, thin, pretty woman.

If studies have long shown that white women are negatively influenced by seeing size 0 and 2 women in the media, how do black women react to similar images?

Two new studies examining media’s role in influencing body image conclude that black womenpay little attention to images of thin, white women. They also seem to suggest that black women have better body images than white women, despite being heavier, and perhaps, unhealthier than their white counterparts.

Prime-Time Reactions

The first study, conducted by the University of Michigan and published in the current issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, looked at popular television’s influence on black women. Researchers quizzed black and white female college students at the University of Michigan about their reactions to such popular television shows as "Beverly Hills 90210," "Frasier," "Friends," "Martin" and "Sister, Sister."

The researchers found that even though only 5.6 percent of the characters on prime-time television are black women, those black women who were studied were mostly unscathed by watching numerous hours of television programs featuring thin, white women.

"Basically, black women just don’t feel bad in the same way white women do by watching television," says L. Monique Ward, professor of psychology at University of Michigan and one of the four authors of the study, Who’s That Girl: Television’s Role In The Body Image Development Of Young White And Black Women.

On the other hand, white women were more likely to compare themselves to the women they saw on television and more likely to have more negative thoughts about their body.

But black women shrugged off the ideal of the thin, pretty white woman as "unattainable for themselves and as unimportant to others in the black community," according to the authors.

Fewer Eating Disorders

Overall, both the black women and the white women who participated in the University of Michigan study had the same body types.

Despite weighing about the same, the black women in the study were less likely than white women to exhibit signs of bulimia.

The study found that white women were more likely than black women to agree with statements like "I eat moderately in front of others and stuff myself when I am alone" and "I am preoccupied with a desire to thinner."

The authors concluded that part of the reason black women felt better than whites, was that black actresses on popular television shows tend to have more realistic body types.

Mikki Taylor, beauty director at Essence magazine, isn’t surprised by the study’s findings. She believes that black women’s identification with black characters on television–and rejection of the media images–confirms the wide range of ideals of beauty among black culture.

"There just isn’t a black standard of beauty to live up to," she says. "We celebrate our uniqueness, whether it’s different skin hues, or different hair. Unlike mainstream culture, there is no one standard that is going to make us feel inferior."

And when blacks watch television, "there’s not a yearning on the part of the audience to look like any other culture," she adds.

Wanting Beyonce’s Body

A Missouri School of Journalism study published in the Journal of Black Studies in March 2004 studied the effects that magazine advertisements–featuring attractive images of white and black young women–played in shaping the self-image of black women.

The study showed magazine advertisements to black college students at the University of Missouri. Like the participants in the Michigan study, black women dismissed images of attractive white women as unimportant. But when shown images of attractive black women–with both curvy and thin bodies–black women with low self-esteem were negatively affected.

"They weren’t affected by pictures of a white Victoria Secret model for instance, but images of Tyra Banks made them feel bad," says Cynthia Frisby, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, who conducted the study. Tyra Banks is an African American supermodel.

The women who felt relatively good about their bodies were not negatively influenced by images of idealized black beauty, according to Frisby.

Overall, Frisby found that the majority of black women in her study reported favored having heavier and hippier bodies, figures more like singer Beyonce Knowles. And for the most part, they were closer to that ideal than that of the ideal of the thin white women.

"Black women are a lot more confident about their bodies, even if they are overweight," says Frisby. "Much of it is cultural, with black men preferring women with bigger hips and bigger butts."

Indeed, the researchers at Michigan also found that the notions of beauty for black women were different from those of white women. The researchers reported that the black women in their study defined beauty based on traits such as style, movement and character, rather than weight and appearance.

Either way, the body types seen on television and in magazines hardly represent the average female population, even if some television shows and magazine advertisements feature black women with heavier bodies.

A report released earlier this year by the American Heart Association found that 77 percent of black women are overweight, compared to 57 percent of white women.

Body Confidence Debated

Despite the studies findings, not everyone agrees that black women are more confident about their bodies than white women.

"So we don’t aspire to be waif-like, blond-haired, blue-eyed women," says Janette Robinson-Flint, director of the Los Angeles-based Black Women for Wellness, a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of black women. "But I do think as black women, we work hard to come to terms with our bodies."

She argues that even if television portrays blacks with more realistic body types, in real life black women are judged by more criteria than white women, for instance, whether their hair is straight or the relative lightness or darkness of their skin color.

In addition, she believes it’s a misconception that the majority of black women don’t feel a pressure to be thin. "It’s something I hear black women talk about everyday," she says.

She also notes that while a bigger body may be celebrated in black culture, black women are also facing greater health risks, such as heart disease, than white women.

University of Missouri’s Frisby agrees that black women need to pay more attention to a healthy diet and exercise. In her next study, she says she will examine the role of black women and health problems such as heart disease and breast cancer.

"As a culture, we’re not concerned about our weight, but we need to be," she says.

Dakota Smith is a freelance writer in New York.



For more information:

Blackwell Publishing, Inc.–"Who’s That Girl: Television’s Role In The Body Image Development Of Young White And Black Women":

University of Missouri-Missouri School of Journalism–
Mass Media Damaging African-American Women’s Body Esteem, MU Journalism Studies Find: