Northeastern University

Real women have curves

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An article in the journal Body Image caught my attention recently: “Considering J.Lo and ‘Ugly Betty:’ A qualitative examination of risk factors and prevention targets for body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and obesity in young Latina women.”

When I got down and dirty with the article, I was even more hooked. Deb Franko is a professor of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and first author on the paper. Franko’s work focuses on disordered eating and body image among adolescent girls. This research is particularly interesting because it connects the competing issues of obesity/overweight and anorexia/excessive dieting that both plague our society.

The Latina population is particularly susceptible to disordered eating while at the same time a significant portion of college-aged Hispanic women report body mass indices over 25. Franko’s team decided to investigate that dichotomy by exploring the cultural factors that may contribute to decreased body image, which is consistently associated with both eating disorders and obesity.

“Despite the evidence of body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, eating disorders and obesity among Latinas, little attention has been paid to gathering qualitative information to broaden our understanding of common cultural antecedents,” write the authors. This paper, which compiles the qualitative outcomes of six Latina undergraduate student focus groups carried out between 2008 and 2010. There were 27 women in the study with a mean age of just over 19 years. Their average BMI was 24.2, with a range of 22.3-25.7 — right around “normal” range as defined by the National Institutes of Health (18.5-24.9).

The researchers transcribed each of the 90 minute conversations and then went through and coded the text for particular “themes.” A couple of different researchers did this coding independently to achieve a more objective representation. Three themes emerged as dominating the conversations:

  1. Cultural disparities in body-ideals
  2. Messages about body shape and weight received by family, peers and society
  3. Difficulties in making healthy eating and physical activity choices as a function of college life
  4. The influence of peers and potential male partners on body satisfaction and ideals

My amateur eye sees the last three of those as pretty universal to all women, not just Latinas. It’s that first one that seems so intriguing to me. The ideal often portrayed in the American media is a skinny, boob-less heroin addict… I mean woman. Hispanic culture on the other hand values a “curvier, fuller body,” according to the authors. Who wouldn’t struggle with those competing messages?

“I’m still trying to come to terms with the difference between the White standard and then the Hispanic standard, because I kind of want both,” said one participant. “I want to be thin, but at the same time I want the curves from the Latina side.”

Some participants talked about their disappointment in America Ferreira (Ugly Betty) when she “lost all that weight” (after appearing in the movie “Real Women Have Curves.”) They also recognized that celebrities like J.Lo, Kim Kardashian, Eva Longoria and Beyoncé are “showing that they can still be really beautiful and not be like the 100lb model with the small frame.” So some of the naturally curvy celebrities are trying to squeeze into the skinny norm while others are embracing their curves.

Their families, they said tended to promote the Latin cultural norm, wondering why their daughters would want to lose weight and diet. They said the company they surrounded themselves with had an impact on their body image also — “For example, when I was in high school, I hung out primarily in a White community. I was surrounded by White girls, there werent’ many Hispanic people in my high school. So I always thought that I was kind of like not shaped like everyone else.” When that student got to college and found herself in a more ethnically and racially diverse community, she began to appreciate her body more.

The authors of the paper make four recommendations based on their thematic findings for developing an “integrated prevention program,” ie., one that addresses both over and underweight issues. These include media literacy intervention, discussions about the conflicting cultural messages, addressing behavioral factors specifically in the context of college life (dining hall eating, being away from the family, etc.), and finally, they say “developing interpersonal skills such as assertiveness and problem solving, as well as learning to decrease body and appearance-related comparisons, are areas of importance.”

After watching The Weight of the Nation a few weeks ago (did you see it? you should and you still can), I’m finding this discussion extremely interesting. There’s this weird yo-yo problem with our population’s weight. On the one hand we get messages saying we need to be thin and on the other hand messages that say we’ll be happy if we eat this or the other high-fat food (imagine sinking your teeth into a juicy cheeseburger right now, wouldn’t that be great? That would solve everything!). This study says it’s even more complicated for women who have not just competing messages within one culture, but competing messages between cultures as well.

Though it still seems to me that the idea of an integrated prevention program would benefit people of all ethnicities, not just Latinas. Overweight and eating disorders both stem from struggles with body image. It’s not the over eating or the under eating. It’s not the weight of the nation, it’s the state of the nation’s mind.

I appreciated that at the end of the article Franko and her team recognized a few shortcomings of the study: “We recognize that the term ‘Latino/a’ covers groups that can differ widely in linguistic, historical and generational backgrounds, and these issues were not addressed in this study.”


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